From the Desk of Dan Ashe

Studying - and Saving - the Polar Bear

Polar bears are some of the world’s most unique animals: exquisitely adapted over evolutionary time to life on top of the Arctic sea ice, these massive carnivores rule the harsh and remote Arctic marine ecosystem. However, climate change and loss of sea ice threaten their very existence.  During November 3-9, AZA and our partners at Polar Bears International (PBI) are observing Polar Bear Week. Polar Bear Week coincides with the fall polar bear migration to Churchill, Manitoba, where polar bears gather to wait for freeze-up on Hudson Bay so they can return to hunting seals. During Polar Bear Week, we focus on the importance of sea ice to polar bears—and why we must take action on climate change to ensure their survival.

Climate change is real, and we are already beginning to see some effects: shrinking sea ice, warmer winters, altered migration routes and blooming times, and sea level rise. Impacts of these habitat changes on polar bears are well documented from several areas. These negative changes have led to a decline in total population size of more than 22% between 1987 and 2018 in the Western Hudson Bay. Additionally, polar bear numbers in the Southern Beaufort Sea population plunged by about 40% over a 10-year study period from 2001-2010, dropping from about 1500 bears to 900 bears before appearing to stabilize. However, we cannot easily predict the magnitude of future effects; nor how species like the polar bear will adapt, if at all, to climatic change. AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums serve a unique and critical role in the care and conservation of polar bears.

As a designated research population, the information learned about polar bears at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums can guide scientists as they develop methods to conserve polar bears in the wild. AZA’s Polar Bear Research Council seeks to maintain a viable population of polar bears for research in zoos and aquariums that facilitates the development of solutions to conservation and management challenges facing wild bears and improves the health and welfare of all polar bears.

Image of Polar Bear at San Diego Zoo Global
Photo Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global

What are our scientists doing? Under guidance from the Polar Bear Research Master Plan, researchers at AZA-accredited facilities are testing and validating innovative technologies like accelerometers and photogrammetry, developing methods to monitor polar bear behavior and physiology, and using husbandry-training approaches to voluntarily engage bears in scientific studies. We are contributing to scientific discoveries that are clarifying just how this species is vulnerable to climate change and sea ice loss, and through non-invasive hormone monitoring and behavioral observations, we are learning about their breeding and maternal care behaviors and reproductive physiology. Such studies are virtually impossible in the wild, and are well-suited to the zoo setting. And while we’re learning about what polar bears need to thrive in the wild, we can also apply these findings to the husbandry-management of bears at AZA zoos and aquariums. Here are some examples of work in zoos and aquariums that has contributed greatly to field research. 

- The San Diego Zoo Global and Oregon Zoo worked with the US Geological Survey (USGS) to measure the energy consumption of polar bears trained to move comfortably in a test space that included a treadmill or swim flumes. This information has helped researchers estimate real-world energy demands on polar bears in a changing Arctic.

Cincinnati Zoo is collecting fecal samples from zoos around the country to try to develop a non-invasive pregnancy test for polar bears, which would allow the scientists caring for these animals to better meet their needs during pregnancy as well as uncover what might be causing the fertilization process to fail. This test could also be applied to polar bears in the wild.

Lincoln Park Zoo is training its polar bears to participate in their own health procedures, such as blood collections and x-rays. The zoo will now be able to contribute to broader research studies examining the behaviors of polar bears and their participation in efforts to track their health.

- Detroit Zoo and San Diego Zoo Global are working with USGS to explore the macro-nutritional dietary preferences of polar bears. This study has implications for the survival and health of wild polar bears as they are forced to exploit evolutionarily novel sources of food. 

This Polar Bear Week, join us as we partner with PBI to engage the in saving the sea ice that polar bears depend on. PBI created a series of daily actions to leverage our power as citizens this week and get involved as members of community groups and organizations to celebrate polar bears and help ensure their future. Learn more at: https://polarbearsinternational.org/get-involved/polar-bear-week/.

Posted by Ashley Jones at 8:00 AM

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