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Open Access Research article

Growth and development of the ovary and small follicle pool from mid fetal life to pre-puberty in the African elephant (Loxodonta africana)

Fiona J Stansfield12*, Johan O Nöthling1 and William R Allen23

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Production Animal Studies, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria, Onderstepoort, Republic of South Africa

2 The Elephant Research and Conservation Unit, Savé Valley Conservancy, Chiredzi, Zimbabwe

3 The Paul Mellon Laboratory, “Brunswick”, 18 Woodditton Road, Newmarket, Suffolk, CB89BJ, UK

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BMC Veterinary Research 2012, 8:119  doi:10.1186/1746-6148-8-119

Published: 23 July 2012

Abstract

Background

Follicle numbers and developing ovarian morphology, particularly with reference to the presence of interstitial tissue, are intimately linked within the ovary of the African elephant during the period spanning mid-gestation to puberty. These have not been previously quantified in any studies. The collection of 7 sets of elephant fetal ovaries between 11.2 and 20.2 months of gestation, and 29 pairs of prepubertal calf ovaries between 2 months and 9 years of age during routine management off-takes of complete family groups in private conservancies in Zimbabwe provided an opportunity for a detailed study of this period.

Results

The changing morphology of the ovary is described as the presumptive cortex and medulla components of the fetal ovary settled into their adult form. Interstitial tissue dominated the ovary in late fetal life and these cells stained strongly for 3β–hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase. This staining continued postnatally through to 4.5 years of age suggesting continued secretion of progestagens by the ovary during this period. The considerable growth of antral follicles peaked at 28% of ovarian volume at around 16.7 months of fetal age. The numbers of small follicles (primordial, early primary and true primary), counted in the cortex using stereological protocols, revealed fewer small follicles in the ovaries of animals aged 0 to 4.5 years of age than during either late fetal life or prepubertal life.

Conclusions

The small follicle populations of the late-fetal and prepubertal ovaries of the African elephant were described along with the changing morphology of these organs. The changes noted represent a series of events that have been recorded only in the elephant and the giraffe species to date. The expansion of the interstitial tissue of the fetal ovary and its continued presence in early post natal life may well contribute to the control of follicle development in these early years. Further research is required to determine the reasons behind the variation of numbers of small follicles in the ovaries of prepubertal calves.

Keywords:
Elephant; Oogenesis; Folliculogenesis; Interstitial cell; Ovary; Reproductive life; Follicle pool