dcsimg Female Health Across the Tree of Life - Conservation Commons Skip to main content


Loading Events

« All Events

  • This event has passed.

Female Health Across the Tree of Life

April 22, 2021 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm EDT

This session focused on shared vulnerability that highlight biodiversity and the female animal, and included discussion on evolutionary adaptations as related to women’s health. A plenary discussion was followed by a series of 15-20 min presentations by undergraduate, medical, and veterinary students presenting their research on female health of the tree of life on a variety of topics.



Organized by by Dawn Zimmerman, DVM, Director of Wildlife Health, Veterinary Medical Officer, Global Health Program, Smithsonian National Zoo and Dr. Barbara N. Horowitz, Harvard Medical School, Harvard University’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and the Division of Cardiology at UCLA.

KEYNOTE: Female Health Across the Tree of Life (12:05)

Presented by Barbara N. Horowitz, MD

The health of all female animals (including humans) is connected by a deep and ancient shared evolutionary legacy.  Increasing awareness of this continuity can improve the health of all females on planet Earth. In this keynote, female health is considered across species and evolutionary time. Shared vulnerabilities to challenges including breast cancer, endometriosis and post-partum depression will be explored in domestic, agricultural, zoological and wild settings. The presentation will feature an exciting new approach to biomedical innovation which recognizes the evolved adaptations of nonhuman female animals as a source of solutions for challenges in women’s health.

Barbara N. Horowitz, MD, is a cardiologist and evolutionary biologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, Harvard University’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and the Division of Cardiology at UCLA. Her research focuses on the natural world as a source of insights into human pathology and developmental challenges. The New York Times bestseller, Zoobiquity, she co-authored with Kathryn Bowers was a Finalist in the American Association for the Advancement of Science Excellence in Science Books Award, a Smithsonian

Top Book of 2012 and a Discover Magazine Best Book of the Year. It has been translated into seven languages and has been chosen as Common Read at universities across the country and was selected by the Nobel Assembly as the theme for their bio-inspired medicine. 2019 Nobel Conference in Stockholm. Their recently published and award-winning book, Wildhood, explores the species-spanning challenges of becoming an adult on planet Earth. Dr Horowitz is the President of the International Society for Evolution, Medicine and Public Health.

Student Research Session 1: Shared Challenges (12:35)

Menstruation Across the Tree of Life
Presented by Talia Natterson

Menstruation is a central feature of the human female reproductive cycle. Menstruation evolved in some lineages and not others and while most mammalian species are not menstruators knowledge of species who do menstruate can be a source of insights into the health of women and girls. Climate change and other anthropogenic effects are impacting menstrual cycles. This presentation will make the case that in the Anthropocene, increased awareness of menstruation and the reproductive health of other has unprecedented salience for the health of women and girls.

Endometriosis Across the Tree of Life
Presented by Ainsley Belisle

Endometriosis is an important challenge faced by increasing numbers of women. As the environment is implicated in many cases of endometriosis awareness of this pathology in other species has taken on new salience for the health of women. By paying attention to the reproductive health of non-human female mammals living in environments shared with humans—from domestic animals to urban mammalian and marine wildlife (squirrels, rodents, whales, otter and seals, among others)—we can better identify environmental threats to women’s health. This presentation will make that case that the identification of endometriosis in other species we can strengthen our understanding of why women, and other female mammals, are vulnerable to the disorder in the first place. This insight holds promise to accelerate biomedical innovation to improve the health of human and nonhuman female animals.

Post-Partum Maternal Syndromes
Presented by Alix Masters

Post-partum depression is increasingly recognized as a significant challenge in women’s reproductive and mental health. While there are unique features to the disorder in our species, across a wide range of mammalian species, post-partum maternal syndromes associated with reduced neonatal care and even neonatal harm, have been identified. In this brief presentation, an overview of post-partum maternal syndromes across the tree of life will be presented. The case will be made that broad comparative and evolutionary perspectives hold promise to deepen our understanding of the triggers and mechanisms underlying the disorder, accelerate biomedical innovation addressing this issue, and even reduce the stigma associated with this and other psychiatric disorders.


Student Research Session 2: Solutions from Females Across the Tree of Life (12:50)

The Giraffe as a Natural Animal Model of Resistance to HFpEF
Presented by Tejas Shivkumar

Modern giraffe species have blood pressures which are significantly higher than other mammals. Like humans with high blood pressures giraffe ventricles thicken but they are spared the changes which cause humans to develop heart failure. This brief presentation makes the case that the natural world is a source of many insights and understanding the evolved physiology that allows giraffe to tolerate these blood pressures without adverse effects may produce insights into cardiovascular disease—the leading cause of death in our species.

The Pregnant Giraffe as a Natural Animal Model for Resistance to Gestational Hypertension-associated Morbidities and Mortality
Presented by Stephanie Chan, Mia Reynolds and Emily Schwitzer

Modern giraffe species have blood pressures which are much higher than what is found in other mammals. Yet the pregnant giraffe mother and fetus tolerate this higher blood pressure without the damage and deaths that may occur with high blood pressure in human pregnancies This presentation makes the case that understanding the physiology allows pregnant giraffes to accomplish this remarkable feat could help physicians face with the challenges of gestational hypertension and women. Equally and perhaps more importantly it focuses our attention on the natural world as a source of invaluable insights for human health.

The Golden Marmot and Giant Panda as Natural Animal Models for Resistance to Osteoporosis

Presented by Liana Owen and Daphnee Piou

Osteoporosis is a major women’s health concern especially for females who anovulatory, post-reproductive or who have long periods of disuse/inactivity. Hibernating species including golden marmots and brown bears and infrequent ovulators such as giant pandas appear to be resistant to the effects of disuse and anovulatory periods on bone density and This presentation makes the case that understanding the physiology that allows these species to accomplish this remarkable feat may be a source of solutions for women’s health. Moreover, it focuses our attention on the natural world as a source of invaluable insights for women’s health.

Closing Remarks by Barbara N. Horowitz, MD (12:25)


Q&A Follow up

Q: Is the development of endometriosis the same in menstruating and non-menstruating mammals?

A: It’s a great question and one that is not currently possible to answer with certainty. There are sufficient similarities in the histopathology (how it appears under the microscope) of endometriosis across mammals. However, undoubtedly there are differences. The many unanswered questions about endometriosis across species—including how environments may increase risk for some females—points to the importance of a broader, species-spanning approach to female health.

Q: Could feeling of a lack of emotional support and assistance led to postpartum syndrome? If so, how would you view/ scale this in nonhuman species? Especially ones that do not exhibit social group behaviors

A: This is a wonderful and highly relevant question. Yes, there is evidence linking a lack of social support to the risk of postpartum depression in humans. As our study suggests, there are likely common neurobiological mechanisms underlying the syndrome in humans and other mammals. It seems likely, therefore, that better social support might be a therapeutic intervention in other species as well. Unfortunately, there is not yet evidence to support this. Again, this points to the opportunity and challenge of looking across species for greater insights in into issues in women’s health.

Q: I’m a psychiatrist – and a zoologist wannabe. I’m interested in the use of medications to treat animal disorders of all types, but especially psychotropic medications to treat behavior disorders in animals, and the effects in mammals vs non-mammalian species, especially birds and reptiles. Enjoyed the thought-proving presentation.

A: Always wonderful to discuss comparative perspectives with other physicians—especially psychiatrists. I have several projects running right now comparing psychopathology in humans and animals. If you are interested in learning more about some of these comparisons, please send me an e mail. Some of the disorders I am studying are: 1) trichotillomania vs feather-plucking in birds 2) postpartum maternal biobehavioral disorders in women and other mammalian mothers 3) eating disorders—specifically social stress induced hyperphagia. There are some fascinating papers on stress eating in dogs and other species.


April 22, 2021
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm EDT
Event Category: