A flexible, snakelike robot could serve as a vital lifeline for bringing the northern white rhino back from the brink of extinction.
Scientists at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) have partnered with the San Diego Zoo to develop the unique device, which they believe could assist with the artificial reproduction process for rhinos.
The northern white rhino has been nearing extinction for some time, with just two specimens left in the world, both of which are female.
A flexible, snakelike robot could serve as a vital lifeline for bringing the northern white rhino (pictured) back from the brink of extinction. There are only two specimens left in the world
Scientists are now 'racing against the clock' to save the species, which has been decimated as a result of habitat loss and poaching.
'Hope for their survival now rests on scientists’ ability to develop innovative methods for repopulating the species,' UCSD said in a statement.
The robotic device could be the innovative method they've been looking for.
'It's essentially a long, thin catheter that can be steered through a rhino's cervix to deliver a specimen to the uterus,' Michael Yip, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCSD, said in a statement.
The device is specially designed to be able to navigate the complex twists and turns of a female rhino's reproductive anatomy.
Scientists have previously used a stainless steel catheter to be able to travel through the labyrinth-like canal leading into a female rhino's vagina, but it requires that they insert it by hand.
The device is specially designed to be able to navigate the complex twists and turns of a female rhino's reproductive anatomy, helped by a series of tendons attached to the device
A female rhino's cervix has a series of twists and turns 'like switchbacks on a steep mountain road' for between 8 to 12 inches, followed by a 'fairly long vagina plus the uterine body' and the uterine horn, totaling some 27 inches worth of anatomy, UCSD noted.
This new device is even more precise and is built to be able to snake through these complex environments, using a series of tendons attached to the device.
It measures just two to three millimeters in diameter and is a few meters in length.
'You can basically marionette the device to curve into any shape you want,' Yip said.
'And you can control it to make very fine, delicate movements so that procedures could be done in the animal safely and non-traumatically.'
Neither of the remaining female northern white rhinos are capable of carrying a pregnancy, so the scientists hope to use the device to artificially inseminate the southern white rhino, a close relative of their northern neighbors.
To do this, they'll first take stem cells from the northern white rhinos and biochemically manipulate them so that they're in a state where they can transform into almost any type of cell in the body, Wired noted.