Wildlife Physiology

Research title:

Advanced in applied physiology and behavioral needs for improvement in the health and husbandry management of wild and zoo herbivores

Tutor: Prof. Massimo Faustini


Contact details

Department of Veterinary Medicine (DIMEVET)

University of Milan – Via G. Celoria, 10 20133 Milan, Italy

Phone: +39 02 50317939

e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


State of the art

Over recent years the issue of the loss of animal biodiversity has become increasingly important. We are losing species at a rate 100 to 1000 times above the ‘normal’ level and about 25% of mammal species are at risk of extinction (IUCN, The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2008). The role of the veterinarian is emerging as a key factor to the success of conservation for many wildlife species within a context of severe extinction threat for a growing number of them. In fact as the preservation of each single individual becomes a necessity, veterinary medicine guarantees the health and welfare of the animals, both in situ and ex situ contexts (AVMA, 2007, www.avma.org; Deem, Intern. Zoo Yearbook 2007, 41(1):3; Hutchins et al., J. Zoo Wildl. Med. 1991, 22 (3): 277-281).

Specialistic literature is full of gaps because for many wildlife species there is limited or no information on their physiology. Extrapolation of knowledge between similar species is a common mistake, which can lead to severe medical and husbandry consequences (Fahlman, Diss., Acta Universitatis agriculturae Sueciae 2008, 84:1652-6880; Arnemo et al., Wildl. Biol. 2006, 56 12(1):109-113).

For most endangered species there is a lack of knowledge about physiological reference values such as hematological and functional parameters, and specie specific cardiopulmonary mechanism. This enhances the risk of complications during common procedures such as chemical and manual restraint, where mortality is still unacceptably high, especially in those cases where a single individual is the key for the conservation of the species. Safe handling of wildlife with minimal stress to the animal is imperative to guarantee animal welfare, and safety for the staff, who is often exposed to dangerous risks during these events (West et al, Zoo animal and wildlife immobilization and anesthesia, 2014; Fowler, Restraint and Handling of Wild and Domestic Animals, 2008).

Misinterpretation about dietary, social and environmental necessities related to lack of information enhances the development of stress in captive populations, with dangerous repercussions causing the development of disease and reduced reproductive performance. In fact since many species show diminished reproductive success in captivity, and for many wild individuals the chance to mate is lowered for environmental reasons, the use of the advanced reproductive techniques represents the future for many critical species. Since those advanced techniques are expensive and the biological material is highly valuable, deep and specific knowledge of reproductive physiology are a priority for their success (Comizzoli et al.,Cancer Treat Res., 2010; 156: 87–100; Holt, Reviews of Reproduction, 1999, 4:143–150).

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Aims of the project

The aim of this project is to improve the veterinary and husbandry management of wildlife species by studying physiological variables and developing strategies to cope with the major threats in zoological medicine.  The goal will be achieved through a multifaceted approach, including applied physiology, laboratory parameters and ethological aspects.

The specific aims are:

  • Develop a database on hematological reference values for species where data is missing.
  • Investigate cardio-respiratory physiology during chemical immobilization or manual restraint in captive and wild animals in order to characterize the critical points associated to a given practice. In particular the focus will be on pulmonary gas exchange and acid-base status, clinical respiratory and cardiovascular parameters.
  • Analyze behavioral patterns of individuals and groups in relation to physiological phases and  stressors (veterinary procedures, diseases).
  • Characterize the reproductive physiology and endocrinology with a focus on fertility parameters (monitoring of estrus cycle, measure of reproductive performances), hormones (hair steroids concentration) and behavior in poorly studied species. Furthermore investigation of the reproductive success in relation to body condition score and the stress related to training for reproductive purposes.
  • Evaluation of body condition score as an indicator for energetic metabolism functionality and its correlation to reproductive success and development of metabolic diseases. Furthermore assessment of the use of body condition score and body mass in conjunction with morphometric measures to estimate body weight in selected species.


Recent publications of the tutor in the field

1) Barella, G., Faverzani, S., Faustini, M., Groppetti, D., Pecile, A. Neonatal mortality in dogs: Prognostic value of Doppler ductus venosus waveform evaluation preliminary results (2016) Veterinary World, 9 (4), pp. 356-360. DOI: 10.14202/vetworld.2016.356-360

2) Montillo, M., Comin, A., Corazzin, M., Peric, T., Faustini, M., Veronesi, M.C., Valentini, S., Bustaffa, M., Prandi, A. The Effect of temperature, rainfall, and light conditions on hair cortisol concentrations in newborn foals (2014) Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 34 (6), pp. 774-778.DOI: 10.1016/j.jevs.2014.01.011

3) Comin, A., Peric, T., Montillo, M., Faustini, M., Zufferli, V., Cappa, A., Cornacchia, G., Prandi, A. Hair cortisol levels to monitor hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity in healthy dairy cows (2012) Journal of Animal and Veterinary Advances, 11 (19), pp. 3623-3626. DOI: 10.3923/javaa.2012.3623.3626

4) Pastore, C., Pirrone, F., Balzarotti, F., Faustini, M., Pierantoni, L., Albertini, M. Evaluation of physiological and behavioral stress-dependent parameters in agility dogs (2011) Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 6 (3), pp. 188-194. DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2011.01.001

5) Faustini, M., Munari, E., Colombani, C., Russo, V., Maffeo, G., Vigo, D. Haematology and Plasma Biochemistry of Stamboek Pre-pubertal Gilts in Italy: Reference Values (2000) Journal of Veterinary Medicine Series A: Physiology Pathology Clinical Medicine, 47 (9), pp. 525-532.