The Role of Zoos in Polar Bear Conservation

Guest Post By: Dr. Thea Bechshoft, Staff Scientist at Polar Bears International and Field Technique Advisor to the Polar Bear Research Council.

As a field biologist, I know first-hand that studying polar bears in the wild can be logistically demanding and even dangerous. Working far out on the sea ice—in extreme cold, in a setting that looks like the moon—is both challenging and awe-inspiring. Such fieldwork yields important insights, and is a critical part of polar bear conservation, but it also has its limits, and that’s where zoos can play a critical role. 

Some research, like those focusing on reproductive studies or on the development of minimally invasive monitoring methods, would be impossible to conduct with polar bears in the wild. Also, it’s extremely rare for field researchers  to handle the same wild bear multiple times during any given year, meaning that field data often gives us a precious but single snapshot in time of what is happening with an individual bear. 

© C Breiter/ Assiniboine Park Zoo – Assiniboine Park Zoo, dye spots with crimp plate

Modern zoos present a unique ability to help fill such knowledge gaps by having their bears take part in studies that can only be conducted in zoo settings. These studies are made possible partly because the highly skilled caretakers and vets at these institutions have the ability to train the animals to allow the collection of voluntary samples, but also because the animals in their care can be accessed multiple times over a longer duration. Both of these factors are immensely helpful, especially in studies that aim to enhance our understanding of polar bear physiology and behavior, and in exploring new, less invasive, monitoring methods. 

Several such studies are underway as we speak. For example, voluntary blood samples are being used to study how the bear’s reproductive hormones fluctuate across the entire calendar year, voluntary hair samples are being used to study the timing of hair growth on different body parts of the animal (which can provide insights into their diet and health), and bears in zoos and aquariums are helping us develop and test new attachment techniques for small tracking devices. Earlier studies provided insights into the energy requirements of polar bears when swimming or walking and also helped solve the puzzle of how polar bears find mates on the vastness of the sea ice.

© Alaska Zoo – Alaska Zoo bear, Ahpun, participates in a study to validate collar sensor data and bear behavior

But how do zoos and aquariums prioritize research on polar bears and forge collaborations with field biologists? Several years ago, in 2018, Polar Bears International supported the efforts of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in forming the Polar Bear Research Council (PBRC). Comprised of zoo professionals and polar bear researchers, including myself and three of my colleagues at Polar Bears International, as well as scientists with the U.S.G.S. and the University of Washington, the Council focuses on keeping the research current with emerging scientific questions regarding polar bears in the wild within the four main areas: Field Techniques, Health and Welfare, Physiology and Behavioral Ecology, and Reproductive Physiology. All of this is collected in the PBRC Research Masterplan, a living document that we revise regularly. We released the newest version just this week and strongly encourage you to take a look at it to learn more about the kinds of research the polar bears in your local zoo or aquarium could become involved in to help polar bears in the wild.

Many of the zoos and aquariums taking part in these studies are part of Polar Bears International’s  Arctic Ambassador Center network, working with us collaboratively on research, education, and action programs that address the challenges polar bears face in a warming Arctic. 

“The plan provides a clear road map that will help zoos and aquariums fill knowledge gaps and support the key priorities of field researchers,” said Dr. Terri Roth, of the Cincinnati Zoo & Aquarium and co-chair of the PBRC. “Collaborations like these are essential to polar bear conservation–and it’s immensely gratifying to realize that zoo-based studies can play such a critical role.”

© D. Sabo/Columbus Zoo – Columbus Zoo bears participates in study of polar bear macronutrient requirements (or makes their selection among fat and protein choices)

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