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Polar Bears and AZA

By Katie Morell
min read

Polar Bear Research at AZA-Accredited Facilities Helps Wild Cousins

2012: The video was running, and as Amy Cutting, animal curator for The Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore., watched, her heart started to pound and a smile spread across her face. She could hear voices yelling, “We got blood! Oh my God, we got blood!” The video panned to a closeup of a vial filled with red liquid and she took a deep breath. This was a moment she’d never forget: proof of the first voluntary blood draw of a polar bear in history without anesthesia.

 2017: The air was both silent and electric with excitement as San Diego Zoo Global’s director of population sustainability Dr. Megan Owen stood with a handful of fellow colleagues to watch Tatqiq, a 17-year-old polar bear, voluntarily enter a plexiglass test space and walk on a treadmill at the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, Calif. Like Cutting, she wore a huge smile and could feel her heart quickening. This sight was years in the making and an integral part of a study on polar bear energetics, the results of which would help us understand the impacts of sea ice losses on polar bears in the wild.

Research Population

The polar bear.

The mere mention of the species today elicits emotion and fascination among anyone with an interest in the environment and the welfare of wild animals. Since the early 2000s when conversations around climate change came to the fore and more attention was being paid to the shrinking of the Arctic ice cap, polar bears have become the flagship species as it relates to our warming planet. Photos and videos revealing emaciated polar bears stranded on land and struggling to swim between ice floes have dominated media coverage and caused widespread concern for the species and the future of the earth as we know it.

On the zoo side, polar bears—charismatic and whip smart—have long inspired crowds to visit Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities. On the field research side, the scientific study of polar bears has been ever-evolving with scientists working in the wild confronted with the inherent challenges of studying a wide-ranging predator over the Arctic sea ice.

“If you are talking about collecting samples, you have to tranquilize bears, and that is often done from helicopters,” said Craig Hoover, a longtime veteran of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and World Wildlife Fund who now serves as executive vice president for the AZA. “It is expensive and can be risky for the bears. We’ve come to realize that there are certain scientific studies that can be done with bears in human care that can’t be easily done with bears in the wild.”

Polar bear swims with research collar at San Diego Zoo.
Credit: © San Diego Zoo Global

Today, staff at AZA-accredited facilities are doing everything they can to conduct studies with polar bears in managed care that involve the voluntary participation of the bears or opportunistic sample collection. The goal of each study is to help polar bears in the wild. This shift—from a display and education species to a conservation research species—has happened gradually, starting with the establishment of the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan® in 2004. Back then, the SSP’s mission was one of education for the public. With husbandry upgrades in mind (among them increased soft substrate in enclosures and feeding adjustments), in the early 2000s, zoos started building new habitats for the species with the goal of spreading the word about climate change.

In 2008, polar bears were listed as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, making work to help wild bears even more important. While several AZA facilities were working to collaborate with field scientists, efforts increased significantly.

“We’ve been working with the AZA for more than 15 years on things like voluntary blood draws, voluntary ultrasounds, voluntary weight measurements, all to gather more information to help polar bears in the wild,” said Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International, a Bozeman, Mont., based conservation organization focused exclusively on polar bears. “Slowly, we’ve been building a network to get scientists who work in the wild to intermingle more with zoo colleagues, to build that conversation. We will often act as the in-between and break down those barriers.

“During that time, we’ve been working with zoo partners to up their game on research and direct action on polar bear conservation in the wild. The AZA has led the way in that regard.”

Around 2017, a group consisting of both AZA colleagues and polar bear field scientists gathered together to create the Polar Bear Research Council (PBRC) with several purposes, among them, according to its masterplan (published in 2018), to ‘guide research priorities for the Polar Bear SSP and participating institutions.’

Picture of a polar bear leaping into water with another following behind.
Credit: © Amanda Carberry, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

“We were finding that if a field scientist wanted to research 15 polar bears in 15 zoos, that person would have been forced to fill out 15 batches of paperwork, which was creating frustration,” said Dr. Terri Roth, vice president for conservation and science at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a PBRC co-chair. “One of our primary goals was to create a standardized form, and if an institution was part of the SSP they would need to accept that form.”

It was around the same time the PBRC was created that the Polar Bear SSP decided to change the designation of zoo polar bears from a ‘conservation action’ to a ‘research population.’ The idea, according to Cutting, being that keepers could train polar bears to participate in their own experience. Resulting studies would provide a direct link to helping polar bears in the wild.

“We wanted field scientists and people within the zoo community and government to recognize that we are serious about polar bears in managed care participating in research focused on helping polar bears in the wild,” said Randi Meyerson, DVM, the Detroit Zoological Society’s deputy chief life sciences officer and program coordinator of the Polar Bear SSP.

Research Specifics

There have been numerous efforts to train polar bears within AZA-accredited facilities to participate in studies that inform wild bear research. Some are very technical and require a lot of equipment (i.e. the treadmill energetics study), while others have been more low-tech.

Back in the late 2000s, as sea losses mounted, scientists at the San Diego Zoo were interested in how this habitat fragmentation might impede the polar bear’s capacity to communicate through scent, with other polar bears. They devised a behavioral discrimination experiment and approached United States Geological Survey (USGS) to see if they’d be willing collect scent samples of wild polar bears. Unlike other carnivores that often leave scent marks and urine on trees, rocks, and other plants, polar bears largely exist on the sea ice, leaving researchers scratching their heads as to how the famously solitary mammals are able to locate each other.

“They can roam tens of thousands of square kilometers by themselves, but when it is time to breed, they need to find each other,” said Owen of San Diego Zoo Global. “At that time, there was anecdotal information on polar bears putting their noses in the tracks of other polar bears, but we decided to untangle the types of scents they may leave in their tracks.”

Owen and her team asked field scientists from USGS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to take an extra step when doing routine polar bear mark-and-recapture work. They sent them Q-Tips and asked them to swab along the paws of the polar bears and then send back the materials.

Swabs from the wild were then presented to polar bears in managed care at AZA-accredited facilities. The test: to see if bears could identify the swabs from the opposite gender.

“We deduced that polar bears can discriminate between male and female scents,” said Owen. “We ended up getting valuable data from 10 other zoos and the findings were published in the Journal of Zoology. It was a great way to get everyone working together to address a specific question.”

Around 2005, AZA was approached with another question: How well can polar bears hear?

A Polar bear sitting on snow
Credit: © Amanda Carberry, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

“We were approached by USGS and Fish and Wildlife because of persistent concerns about the potential for noise from oil and gas activities on the North Slope of Alaska to disrupt maternal denning,” said Owen. “Since polar bears den under the snow, we can’t see what is happening to them, and we don’t know the potential for disturbance. They approached us for help on figuring out what polar bears can hear.”

In response, San Diego Zoo Global enlisted the help of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and developed a rigorous protocol to train polar bears to move if they heard a specific sound. Each bear voluntarily entered a sound-dampened space and if they heard a sound, they knew to casually move their head to a different spot and touch a target.

“It was akin to when you get your hearing tested by a doctor and the doctor puts headphones on you and tells you to lift a finger if you hear a noise,” Owen said. “It took months to train the bears and collect the data, but at the end of the day, it was an incredible demonstration of how we could pull scientific and animal husbandry skills together to fill a critical knowledge gap about polar bears.”

Research Results

This focus on training polar bears in managed care to voluntarily participate in studies that could help bears in the wild begs a question.

Are these studies ultimately helping to save more wild polar bears?

Owen has an answer.

“Each of these studies has contributed to the body of knowledge that will help us to better manage and conserve polar bears, but it’s important to remember that these things take time. These data are pieces of the puzzle,” she said. “Every study contributes to what we know about polar bears and ideally can be parlayed into management actions, but there is no silver bullet in this time of rapidly changing climate. We are building a body of knowledge that is helping us move the needle for this incredible species.”

Cover image credit: © Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Katie Morell is a writer based in Sausalito, Calif. 

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