FAIRBANKS - Lightning the reindeer and University of Alaska Fairbanks herdsman Rob Aikman both made history Thursday.
The 3-year-old reindeer gave birth to an unprecedented calf; one conceived through artificial insemination using previously frozen semen.
A minute later, Aikman saved the calf's life.
It was all part of a wild day at the UAF Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, which has the only reindeer research facility in North America. The successful pregnancy could be the first step toward a small breeding revolution in the reindeer industry.
"I think it's a feather in our caps," said Milan Shipka, a UAF professor and associate director of the research station.
But even after the still-unnamed male calf was born on Thursday, the conclusion was in doubt.
Several hours after Lightning went into labor at about 11 a.m., Aikman noticed the calf was breech and his mother was having trouble delivering. Concerned the calf might suffocate, he helped pull it out by its legs.
The newborn wasn't breathing, but Aikman thought there might be hope.
Aikman, who is trained in first aid, gave the calf mouth-to-mouth, delivering three breaths before it sputtered to life.
Shipka said the outcome is good news for the reindeer industry. The calf is the first documented birth using previously frozen reindeer semen, he said, and UAF researchers have spent years pursuing that goal.
If the use of frozen semen is perfected for reindeer, Shipka said the process could allow desired genetic traits to be emphasized in a herd without importing a faraway bull to mate with its females. He said bigger reindeer, better maternal behavior and stronger milk production could all be targets of a focused breeding program.
Lightning's calf was fathered with sperm from a bull in Saskatchewan, Canada. The semen was frozen to minus 112 degrees in a laboratory there last year, then transported to Fairbanks and thawed in a 90-degree bath before being inserted into Lightning's reproductive system.
UAF researchers tried to artificially inseminate seven reindeer last fall with the semen, but had trouble making it work. Five of those attempts failed, and pregnancy tests were hazy on a sixth. Only Lightning showed a positive result, and even that pregnancy was uncertain until labor began on Thursday.
Shipka said researchers need to solve a few problems before artificial pregnancies in reindeer become common. The species' semen is difficult to freeze, which makes storage a challenge. Scientists also don't know much about what timing in the reproductive cycle is best for inseminating a reindeer, which is another key to the puzzle.
Artificial insemination is common today among cattle farmers, but Shipka said the process takes a while to perfect. He pointed out that an early artificial cow pregnancy was unveiled at the World's Fair in 1939, but it took nearly 30 years before most farms were comfortable with the practice.
If artificial insemination of reindeer becomes common, Shipka said it may not just create more desirable animals, but could also result in new revenues for breeders. Bulls with desirable traits could suddenly have semen that is a marketable product.
But the future of the UAF artificial insemination program is in some doubt, Shipka said. This year's program was paid for through an $80,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, but no money has been secured for another round of testing.
"A majority of our funding comes from Washington, D.C., and it's hard to convince them that reindeer is an agricultural species," he said.
Despite that, Shipka said he's hopeful that the artificial breeding program will continue next fall.