A potential link between insulin resistance and iron overload disorder in browsing rhinoceroses investigated through the use of an equine model

J Zoo Wildl Med. 2012 Sep;43(3 Suppl):S61-5. doi: 10.1638/2011-0145.1.


Iron overload disorder afflicts captive rhinoceros but has not been documented in the wild. The specific cause for the disorder has not been identified but is likely associated with diet and management. Compared with wild counterparts, captive rhinoceros eat diets containing more iron, have greater fat stores, and exercise less. It has been suggested that the problem may be linked to development of insulin resistance in the captive population. Given that controlled experiments with sufficient numbers of rhinoceros are logistically not possible, an equine model was used to look for a relationship between iron status and insulin resistance; the nutritional requirements of horses are used as a guide for rhinoceros, because they have similar gastrointestinal tracts. Sixteen horses were tested to determine blood insulin responses to an oral drench of dextrose (0.25 g/kg bodyweight) and a meal of pelleted corn (1.5 g/kg bodyweight). Fasting blood samples were taken 30 and 0 min before administration. Further blood samples were taken every 30 min for 4 hr after administration to determine peak insulin and total area under the insulin curve (AUC). Fasting samples were tested for serum ferritin concentrations. Correlations were determined between ferritin and peak insulin concentrations and insulin AUC after administration of oral dextrose and pelleted corn. The strongest correlation was between ferritin and insulin AUC after dextrose administration (r = 0.61; P = 0.01) followed by AUC after feeding a meal of pelleted corn (r = 0.60; P = 0.01), with the correlation for peak insulin being 0.53 (P = 0.03) after dextrose administration and 0.56 (P = 0.02) after pelleted corn. When evaluating responses by gender, a significant correlation existed only for females, influenced by one insulin resistant individual. These data suggest a potential link between insulin resistance and body stores of iron and also suggest that approaches to reduce the susceptibility to insulin resistance should be incorporated into management of captive browsing rhinoceros.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Wild
  • Female
  • Ferritins
  • Insulin / blood*
  • Insulin Resistance / physiology*
  • Iron Overload / veterinary*
  • Male
  • Perissodactyla / blood*
  • Perissodactyla / physiology*
  • Pilot Projects


  • Insulin
  • Ferritins