Cervix-Navigating Robots Are Saving Rhinos From Extinction!

We have harnessed the awesome resources offered by nature and shaped our world into a wondrous place. 
With the awe, comes the shock. Humans have accomplished incredible feats throughout our history and we have caused unspeakable devastation to the place we call home. One such tragedy is the decimation of the northern white rhinoceros. 

The situation for the northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni)  is the brink of extinction, with only two barren females left in the world, both of whom reside under 24-hour guard at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. There are no known living males; the last male, named Sudan, died in March 2018. 

The female northern white rhino’s cervix is something of a natural wonder, comprised of a series of “interlocking ridges or rings that make it look like a number of S’s connected to each other for 8 to 12 inches,” according to Barbara Durant, the director of reproductive sciences at the San Diego Zoo, who likened its appearance to that of Lombard Street in San Francisco. “It’s just back and forth, back and forth.”

 A flexible robotic catheter designed to navigate the unusually shaped cervix of the northern white rhino.

Photo by:David Baillot/UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

While the evolution of the rhino’s cervix may have served its purpose, it is unknown to us why it is designed the way it is, and we can only speculate to the advantage such architecture would entail. That said, the San Diego Zoo and UC San Diego Robotics have teamed up to inspire an interesting solution to combat the demise of these beloved creatures. Together, they have designed a serpentine robot whose intended purpose is to navigate the tumultuous cervix and deposit an embryo directly into the uterus. 

  • How is this possible, you might ask, when the only two living white rhinos on Earth are both female and are both barren (meaning they no longer have eggs in their reproductive system to be fertilized)?

Scientists would reverse engineer living skin cells and reprogram them to replicate into the correct cell types to produce new northern white rhino eggs and sperm. This is a technique that has been tried and tested in mice, so with some tweaking, they are hopeful that the same process will work to produce viable embryos that can be implanted into a surrogate – the southern white rhino, a close relative of the northern white rhino, where the UC San Diego robot we mentioned earlier would come into play. 

When all is said and done, we may just see the northern white rhino bounce back from the very brim of extinction and humans can redeem themselves, if only just a little bit, for their part in creating this mess to begin with. 

Victoria, a southern white rhino, welcomed a new calf following a successful artificial insemination attempt at the San Diego Zoo.

With the northern white rhino in dire straights, and other rhino populations in jeopardy, it was with great pleasure that the San Diego Zoo announced the arrival of the very first southern white rhino calf conceived through artificial insemination in North America at their Safari Park on Sunday, July 28, 2019. This was the first of its species to have been conceived through artificial means on the continent.

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