11 July 2014

Aquarium performs its first-ever stingray blood transfusion

Helen Lockhart

Blood transfusions are routine for humans, but stingrays? That’s exactly the action the Two Oceans Aquarium had to take, to save the life of one of its short-tail stingrays.

Aquarium vet Dr George and aquarist in charge of quarantine, Nicholas Nicholle, in the process of the blood transfusion. Photo by Kevin Spiby

Aquarists taking care of the juvenile short-tail stingrays on display in the Atlantic Ocean Gallery observed recently that the animals were not eating.

Upon closer inspection they discovered the rays’ gills were very pale. Dr Georgina Cole, our resident vet (who is nicknamed “Dr George”), suspected gill flukes (worm-like parasites) and dewormed the rays.

“We saw large numbers of flukes fall off in the water after the deworming treatment. This particular gill fluke parasite feeds on blood,” says Dr George. “Unfortunately, one of the rays had severe anaemia and died in quarantine a few days later.”

The condition of a second ray was deteriorating rapidly and so, after discussions with a vet at the Georgia Aquarium in the US, Dr George decided that a blood transfusion was the ray’s best chance of survival. She first conducted a blood compatibility test to ensure that the blood of one of the healthier rays matched that of the sick ray.

A close-up of the transfusion. Photo by Kevin Spiby

With assistance from some curious curatorial staff, Dr George anaesthetised both animals and first drew blood from the caudal vein (which is at the base of the ray’s tail) from the donor animal.

She added some heparin, which is an anti-coagulant, and had two assistants rock the syringes of blood back and forth so that no clots formed (human blood transfusions are easier, as the blood “kit” already contains all the necessary elements to prevent clotting).

The blood was then slowly transferred via catheter into the caudal vein of the sick ray. Thirty minutes later the procedure was complete, and Dr George had performed the first-ever ray blood transfusion at the Two Oceans Aquarium.

The ray’s condition improved significantly, and within 48 hours it was eating again. It is now back on display in the Atlantic Ocean Gallery, and hasn’t looked back.

The healthy, happy ray reunited with her ray buddies. Photo by Renée Leeuwner

Visit the rays this weekend – obtain your tickets online here.

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