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Lessons from the Past: Metabolic Bone Disease in Historical Captive Primates


Primate welfare in captivity has significantly improved over the last century as a result of the advances made in providing an adequate diet and environment. The skeletal collections of museums provide evidence of this shift in captive care, because metabolic disease caused by dietary deficiency or inappropriate surroundings can cause deformation to the hard tissues. The Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) holds a collection of 1507 nonhuman primate skulls in its Odontological Collection, the majority donated before the mid-20th century from various sources. We observed a recurring gross pathology in 51 of these skulls, noted in museum records as captive animals. In all cases, general bone thickening with decreased bone density is the main feature and involves primarily the bones of the maxillofacial region and mandible. We performed computed tomography scanning on a subsample of these skulls to investigate these pathological features further. We compared the RCS historical collections and a more recent captive primate collection at the National Museum of Scotland. The findings suggest that a metabolic bone disease is the causative agent, with osteomalacia the likely diagnosis. Osteomalacia typically occurs due to malnutrition and/or insufficient ultraviolet light exposure and in this case reflects the inadequacy of zoo primate management during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Developments have since been made in captive animal welfare as a result of improvements in nutrition and environment. Metabolic bone disease in primate captivity can be regarded as a lesson from the past.

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We thank the following people and organizations for their contribution to this study: Dr. Andrew Kitchener (National Museum of Scotland), Dr. Sam Alberti, John Carr (Royal College of Surgeons of England), Cavendish Imaging, and the Faculty of Dental Surgery for their support. We also extend our sincere gratitude to the editor and our reviewers for their invaluable comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Milly Farrell.

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Farrell, M., Rando, C. & Garrod, B. Lessons from the Past: Metabolic Bone Disease in Historical Captive Primates. Int J Primatol 36, 398–411 (2015).

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  • Captivity
  • Museum collections
  • Osteomalacia
  • Zoos