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Follicle numbers and developing ovarian morphology, particularly with reference to the presence of interstitial tissue, are intimately linked within the ovary of the African elephant during the period spanning mid-gestation to puberty. These have not been previously quantified in any studies. The collection of 7 sets of elephant fetal ovaries between 11.2 and 20.2months of gestation, and 29 pairs of prepubertal calf ovaries between 2months and 9years of age during routine management off-takes of complete family groups in private conservancies in Zimbabwe provided an opportunity for a detailed study of this period.
The changing morphology of the ovary is described as the presumptive cortex and medulla components of the fetal ovary settled into their adult form. Interstitial tissue dominated the ovary in late fetal life and these cells stained strongly for 3β–hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase. This staining continued postnatally through to 4.5years of age suggesting continued secretion of progestagens by the ovary during this period. The considerable growth of antral follicles peaked at 28% of ovarian volume at around 16.7months of fetal age. The numbers of small follicles (primordial, early primary and true primary), counted in the cortex using stereological protocols, revealed fewer small follicles in the ovaries of animals aged 0 to 4.5years of age than during either late fetal life or prepubertal life.
The small follicle populations of the late-fetal and prepubertal ovaries of the African elephant were described along with the changing morphology of these organs. The changes noted represent a series of events that have been recorded only in the elephant and the giraffe species to date. The expansion of the interstitial tissue of the fetal ovary and its continued presence in early post natal life may well contribute to the control of follicle development in these early years. Further research is required to determine the reasons behind the variation of numbers of small follicles in the ovaries of prepubertal calves.