Why Army Scientists Investigated Red Panda Death at National Zoo

US Army scientists were investigating the death of a rare creature earlier this year: a red panda associated with the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI). The Army scientists were brought in because of their extensive expertise in pathogen detection and microbiology, which the Smithsonian needed to determine what type of biological warfare agent killed the panda. This information will help protect the red panda worldwide.

“Red pandas are endangered and legally protected in India, Bhutan, China, Nepal and Myanmar,” said Dr. Neel Aziz, veterinary pathologist at the NZCBI, in an Army press release on Tuesday. “Learning the specific genus and species of pathogens that affect red pandas will aid conservation medicine at the wildlife-companion animal interface, as well as at the wildlife-human interface.”

It was not immediately clear which red panda had died. In October, CNN reported that Rusty, a red panda who became famous for 15 Minutes in 2013 for escaping the National Zoo and wandering around Washington DC, had died at the age of 10, although Rusty had previously been to the Pueblo Zoo in His death had been brought to Colorado. Whoever the poor red panda was, the knowledge gained from his death “will ultimately help protect the endangered species,” the press release said.

The army team, made up of four soldiers and two civilians, performed transmission electron microscopy studies on tissues from the panda’s brain to identify the protozoa there. One of the soldiers, Maj. Mathanraj Packiam, has a PhD in microbiology and immunology, so this was right in his wheelhouse.

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“Discovering pathogens, or detecting an unknown pathogen in a sample, is my passion,” he said in the press release.

Packiam knows his business: According to the press release, the soldier recently passed the American Board of Medical Microbiology exam, a six-and-a-half-hour ordeal of 200 multiple-choice questions that historically has a 20% pass rate for non-community candidates. Packiam’s colleagues in the Ukrainian military even dubbed him “the professor” during a training exercise in 2021 in diagnostic testing and biological threat identification.

Why Army Scientists Were Called In To Investigate The Death Of A Red Panda At The National Zoo
(From left) Maj. Mathanraj Packiam, Raina Kumar, Maj. Jeffrey R. Kugelman, Dr. Janice Williams and Lt. Col. Curtis R. Cline stand together at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The US Army team contributed to an investigation into the cause of death of a red panda at the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI), and the findings will ultimately help protect the endangered species. (Joseph Nieves/US Army)

Packiam’s expertise paid off in the investigation into the red panda’s death. At first, the scientists suspected the pathogen Toxoplasma gondii, a disease-causing parasite for which cats in zoos are the most likely source of infection. But the team discovered that the agent who killed the panda was actually Sarcocystis neurona, for which opossum is the most likely source of infection. With this knowledge, the zoo can better protect its red pandas, Packiam said.

In addition to being useful for endangered species, identifying pathogens is also a useful skill in countering biological warfare. After all, it’s difficult to fight a threat without knowing what it is and how to defeat it. In fact, threat identification is the primary mission of Packiam’s unit, the 1st Area Medical Laboratory.

“The mission of the AML is to identify and assess health threats in a theater of operations through unique laboratory analysis and rapid health threat assessment of nuclear, biological, chemical, and occupational and environmental health threats,” Army scientists wrote in a 2016 paper the 1st AML response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

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Why Army Scientists Were Called In To Investigate The Death Of A Red Panda At The National Zoo
The imprint on the 1st Area Medical Laboratory’s unit insignia reads “Mad Scientist” and was displayed during a change of command ceremony welcoming Colonel Matthew Grieser as the new commander on July 23, 2021 at the Mallett Auditorium in Aberdeen Testing Grounds, Maryland. The 1st AML is the US Army’s only active-duty deployable laboratory for theater-of-operations validation of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear warfare agents. (Marshall R. Mason/US Army)

“Identifying unknown etiological agents in the sample plays an important role both as a clinical microbiologist working at the hospital and as a subject matter expert working on theater-level validation for the 1st Area Medical Laboratory,” said Packiam, who also serves as an officer – Responsible for biosurveillance at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the Army’s center for research into medical countermeasures to biological warfare.

Although national security news today often covers high-tech weapons like hypersonic missiles, loitering ammunition and even laser guns, the World Health Organization still considers biological warfare agents a serious problem, with an increasing risk that terrorists will use them in an attack. Packiam and other experts from 1st AML are designed to help stop these types of threats, Col. Matthew J. Grieser, the unit’s commander, said in a September press release.

“We have a world-class team here, capable of working with combined, cross-agency and allied forces to confront and defeat the most dangerous threats under the most severe conditions,” said Grieser.

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