nursing schoolAnywhere it wants. OK, they don’t really expectorate. So Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing (JHUSON) saliva expert Douglas Granger has done a bit of improvisation.

Now, few humans would drool at the chance to swab the inside of a quarter-ton sea lion’s mouth. There's the fishy breath, naturally. And did we mention the canine teeth? Gumdrops and lollipops it isn't.

Then there's Granger, PhD, Director of the JHUSON's , who sees studying the zoo animals as a perfect opportunity to continue his groundbreaking research on how saliva can signal stress, health risks, and illness in the human body, and apply this research to endangered species as well.

Granger has partnered with Michelle Farmerie, MAIS-ZAL, who chairs the Animal Enrichment Committee at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, on a project to study through saliva swabs how much stress animals experience from changes in their environment, including when moved from zoo to zoo. The research team hopes the sea lions' saliva can offer clues to how individual animals handle various experiences. The idea is that the study will give animal caregivers more data that they can use to further enhance the health and welfare of animals.

Granger and Farmerie’s research partnership was born, appropriately enough, at "Spit Camp," one of the two-day seminars developed by Granger that offer an intensive, hands-on how-to on collecting and analyzing saliva. Farmerie and Granger began discussing collaborations and the applications of Granger’s work with Farmerie’s primary charges, Bornean orangutans. So when four female sea lions were going to be transferred from the Pittsburgh Zoo to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Farmerie and Henry Kacprzyk, curator of Kid's Kingdom at Pittsburgh, asked Granger if he would like to collaborate.

For the project, before-and-after samples were collected from Hawk, the hefty bull sea lion that stayed in Pittsburgh as the four females moved on to D.C. Head sea lion trainer Judy Obeldobel accompanied the animals and collected samples after they arrived in Washington. The female sea lions that remained with Hawk were swabbed as well. "Advancing our understanding of these relationships may allow us to better serve the needs of animals in zoos," Granger says.

"We will also be able to expand this research to include other species," adds Farmerie. "This could be a major step in advancing proactive care and behavior management for animals worldwide."

Meanwhile, Granger is not closing off any avenues of research. And if that means staring down the business end of a fishy, toothy marine mammal? He is one to look a gift horse, or sea lion, in the mouth.

To learn more about Spit Camp and the Center for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research, contact the Center at [email protected]

Image by Paul A. Selvaggio Photography.