Polar Bears: How Ex Situ Research Can Answer In Situ Questions
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2014
Wynona Shellabarger1, DVM; Randi Meyerson2, DVM
1Detroit Zoological Society, Royal Oak, MI, USA; 2Toledo Zoo, Toledo, OH, USA


Zoos have often used the phrase “ambassador for the species” to refer to particular animals or species they hold in their resident populations. While this terminology has continued to evolve, it is meant in part to point out the important role these animals can play in bringing awareness to the plight of their counterparts and their counterparts’ habitats in the wild. A prime example of this is the polar bear (Ursus maritimus). They are an amazingly popular visitor attraction in the zoo setting. On a larger scale, and in the context of their role as “ambassador,” their popularity, if properly utilized, has immense potential to bring about public awareness of the eminent dangers that climate change is having on their Arctic climate, melting sea ice, and their ultimate survival in the wild. By piquing public interest, captive polar bears can not only stimulate better public understanding of climate change, but ideally motivate actions to become more “green” in daily practices, reducing our carbon footprint, and potentially impacting the survival or their wild counterparts at some level.

Another emerging role captive polar bears are playing that has great potential for impacting their wild counterparts is through inclusion in collaborative research studies. A number of noninvasive studies that have included data from captive polar bears have been designed and conducted to help field scientists predict how polar bears will react to a changing Arctic climate, and to develop technologies to better study them in the wild. Collaborative working relationships between national and international field scientists, zoological institutions, and groups such as USFWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), USGS (U.S. Geological Service), and PBI (Polar Bears International) are increasing and are certainly proving to be fruitful endeavors. Auditory studies have helped further knowledge of maternal denning disturbance issues.2 Olfactory studies are looking into the possible effects of a how fractured ice surface affects the ability of bears to find each other during breeding season in a vast and harsh environment.3 Other ongoing studies are looking at gene regulation in response to environmental factors,1 and the potential for West Nile virus infection in wild polar bears in a warming Arctic climate (Ongoing study: Polar Bear SSP, Shellabarger). Additionally, techniques developed for assisted reproduction in other species are being developed for polar bears to enhance captive reproductive efforts and a sustainable captive assurance population should one be needed in the future (Ongoing study: Polar Bear SSP, Roth).

Polar bears are large, formidable animals, not generally thought of as good candidates for noninvasive or minimally invasive sampling or manipulations. Many of the projects mentioned above have shown that with the ingenuity and creativity of zoo and animal staff, captive polar bears can safely be accessed and will willingly participate, providing valuable information. The collaborations between zoos, zoo veterinarians, field researchers and their affiliates, while not without obstacles, has proven very promising for polar bear research and should be fostered in an effort to gain more knowledge and a better understanding of the species as a whole.

Literature Cited

1.  Bowen L, Miles K. Exploratory gene transcript study: environmental stressors and polar bear immune function. USGS. Ongoing study.

2.  O’Neill C, Owen MA, Wisdom S, Kirschoffer J. Received sounds in artificial polar bear dens. Technical report for Polar Bears International by JASCO Applied Sciences. 2012:102.

3.  Owen MA, Swaisgood RR, Slocomb C, Amstrup SC, Durner G, Simac K. An experimental investigation into chemical communication in the polar bear (Ursus maritimus). Revision: Journal of Zoology. London.


Speaker Information
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Wynona Shellabarger, DVM
Detroit Zoological Society
Royal Oak, MI, USA

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