Celebrating a Great Year

This past year, the faculty and staff of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center (WHC) have been innovative and tireless in working for the health of  free-ranging wildlife around the world.

From the West Coast of the Americas to the forests of Africa, and from sea stars and abalone to mountain lions and mountain gorillas, the WHC is pleased to be sharing success stories from 2016. 

As you read these stories, note the common thread running throughout: these successes are the result of teamwork and collaboration around a common mission ­– to advance the health of wildlife in balance with people and the environment.

None of this work would be possible without our partners and supporters, who not only inspire us to do our best work, but who remind us every day of the power of nature and goodwill to achieve positive change. 

Wild Killer Whales to get Personal Health Records

The 84 endangered southern resident killer whales of the Salish Sea will soon have personal health records, thanks to a major collaborative effort spearheaded by the WHC’s SeaDoc Society. Whale researchers in the Salish Sea will soon be regularly collecting important observational health data on a daily basis, and will combine this information with photographs and a catalog of collected samples (like feces, breath, and sloughed skin), in an effort modeled in part on the WHC’s Gorilla Doctors program in Africa.   

Tracking Oiled Refugio Pelicans One Year Later

When a massive oil spill struck California’s Refugio State Beach in May of 2015, the WHC’s Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) was the first line of defense for hundreds of oiled birds and mammals. Upon their full recovery, the OWCN placed tracking devices on 12 rehabilitated brown pelicans to follow their movement in the wild to better understand their behavior and survival in an effort to inform future response. One year later, the results have been impressive, with birds showing positive behavioral signs and traveling long distances, including the Oregon Coast and Baja California.  

Chewed Plants to Detect Viruses in Mountain Gorillas

In collaboration with the WHC’s Gorilla Doctors program, one of the WHC’s graduate students, Dr. Tierra Smiley Evans developed an innovative method for obtaining biological samples from wild primates, including endangered great apes, in a simple, non-invasive way.  Dr. Evans and her colleagues collected chewed and discarded plant samples from 383 mountain gorillas and 18 golden monkeys, and in saliva they collected from the chewed plants, discovered they could detect viruses in the oral cavities of wild primates.  


The WHC’s California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project has helped clean California’s coastal waters of hundreds of abandoned fishing nets and traps – more than 100 tons – since 2006. This year, the project proved extra important after a toxic algae bloom producing high levels of domoic acid delayed the start of the Dungeness crab season. Gear recovery offered crab fishermen a chance to earn money and keep their boats on the water during the frustrating standstill. The WHC’s work with Dungeness crab fishermen has been so successful that the fishermen themselves instigated new legislation, signed by the Governor in September, that now mandates derelict Dungeness crab gear recovery in the state. 

The Tiny Science of Hummingbird Monitoring

Beyond their great beauty in such tiny packages, hummingbirds are ecosystem sentinels that serve important environmental functions, like eating insects and pollinating plants. If hummingbird populations were to take a serious hit — like honeybees have suffered with the emerging disease called colony collapse disorder — population recovery would be critical but challenging. That’s why the Hummingbird Health and Conservation Program, led by Dr. Lisa Tell and other affiliated faculty of the WHC, is monitoring hummingbirds closely.


Boxed in by freeways and sprawling human development, mountain lions in Southern California face a number of serious threats. Vehicle collisions and depredation are the leading causes of death, but a severe drop-off in genetic diversity also poses great challenges. The WHC’s Winston Vickers and his team track the movement of lions across their fragmented landscape, using science to inform policy makers and builders as urban development spreads unchecked. The work has directly informed the strategic construction of protective fencing along stretches of Orange County toll roads and mitigation efforts surrounding several urban developments. 


There are only a few hundred Amargosa voles left in the world, and they live in the marshes that bubble up around springs and wells along a tiny range of the Mojave Desert. WHC affiliated faculty Drs. Janet Foley and Deana Clifford assembled a team to study their diet and gut microbial community as well as their genetic makeup, and this year mapped the entire genome of an individual vole to serve as a starting place for better understanding and supporting the recovery of this California endemic species. 

Scientists Outfox Ear Tumors in Endangered Island Foxes

Studies led by WHC scientists have found that treatment for ear mites can reduce the prevalence of ear tumors in the endangered Catalina Island fox.  After a six-month trial treating foxes with an acaracide, ear infections dropped from 98 to 10 percent and there was an observable reduction in the number of tumors. The foxes are intensively managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy, which reports that the species’ population has rebounded from 150 to an estimated 1,717 since 1999. 

Gorilla Doctors Saving a Species onE Gorilla at a Time

With just 880 mountain gorillas left in the world and Grauer’s gorillas also now critically endangered, every individual counts. The WHC’s Gorilla Doctors veterinarians trekked 330 times into the forest to check on the health of gorillas or to respond to official reports of illness or injury and conducted 41 interventions to treat sick and injured gorillas in 2015-2016. On top of that, our Africa-based team ensured the health of park workers and their families with preventive health care interventions, and helped develop vital best practices for great ape health and disease monitoring. 

Paving the Way for Pathogens

Increases in coastal development and precipitation help push land-based parasites into to the ocean, according to the WHC’s latest research on the zoonotic parasite Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite is shed by domestic and feral cats, and once shed in their feces, can survive in the environment for weeks. When it washes into the ocean, it can be deadly for sea otters and other marine mammals. The latest study highlights how pathogens shed by people, pets, wildlife and livestock can cause harm to the sea, especially in heavily developed areas.

Restoring White Abalone

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s white abalone captive breeding program, led by WHC affiliates Laura Rogers-Bennett and James Moore, has given hope for the survival of a species once on the brink of extinction. The team began breeding white abalone several years ago in tanks at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory, and in 2016 began reintroducing individuals back into the ocean. This year, the team also collected the first wild white abalone in more than a decade, which has allowed for the introduction of more genetic diversity into the captive population. 

Inland Oil Spills & the Tracks Forward 

The WHC’s Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) is diligently preparing for the increased likelihood of an inland oil spill given the rapid rise of oil transport by rail in the United States in recent years. The OWCN’s mission is to “provide the best achievable capture and care of oiled wildlife,” and our teams have done so along the coast for more than 20 years. We made some great progress on our expansion to inland spill response in 2016, identifying new areas of risk based on increased inland oil transport combined with data from environmental mapping resources, and we're poised to carry that momentum into 2017. 

Launching a new Free-Ranging Wildlife Residency

In collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the WHC launched a 3-year residency position in free-ranging wildlife health – the first of its kind in the nation. Our first resident will begin on July 1, 2017 at a CDFW facility alongside state wildlife veterinarians and biologists. Starting the second year, the resident will enroll in the prestigious Master of Preventive Veterinary Medicine (MPVM) Program at the UC Davis campus. The resident will receive advanced training in everything from endangered species recovery and outbreak investigation to wildlife-livestock conflict, pathology, toxicology and more. 

Letters From Future Scientists

Many of our programs and projects are fortunate to connect with future generations through educational outreach, television programs, textbooks and more. We sometimes receive feedback from children who form strong bonds with our work and the animals we care so much about. It brings us great joy, so we wanted to share a few with you. You can write us anytime: 

Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center
University of California, Davis
One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616