Supporting Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Conservation and Management through Zoo Research
2018 Joint EAZWV/AAZV/Leibniz-IZW Conference
Wynona Shellabarger1, DVM; Randi Meyerson1, DVM; Megan Owen2, PhD
1Detroit Zoological Society, Royal Oak, MI, USA; 2Institute for Conservation Research, San Diego Zoo Global, San Diego, CA, USA


The Polar Bear SSP population has recently been given a research designation. The purpose of this designation is to improve the health and welfare of all polar bears, both in the wild and in zoos. The AZA Polar Bear Research Council was formed to help facilitate this mission and to help promote member participation in priority ex situ research projects that can inform critical conservation and management questions for polar bears in situ. This research council is comprised of a diverse group of leaders in the field of polar bear research and science, representing such groups as Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA), Institute for Conservation Research, San Diego Zoo Global, Center for Reproduction of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), Polar Bears international (PBI), United States Geological Survey (USGS), to name a few. The AZA Polar Bear Research Council has developed a mission statement and master plan, and now working with USFWS is poised to guide research priorities, track progress, stay abreast of current emerging scientific questions, guide research proposal endorsements by the Polar Bear SSP, and help facilitate priority research efforts in SSP institutions.

There are a number of zoos in the United States and Europe that have already developed close collaborations with field biologists and government organizations studying polar bears in the wild. They have been able to work together through the potential quagmire of Marine Mammal Act and other regulatory challenges to obtain information and data that benefits both parties. Creative, non-invasive training programs have been developed within several zoos that have enabled collection of valuable physiologic, sensory, and biologic data from zoo polar bears.

Some recent or current zoo research collaborations include:

  • Sensory ecology studies measuring auditory and olfactory processes, which help define sensory capacity, hearing thresholds, chemical cue detection and preferences and sensory processes that guide critical behaviors in bears. Results of these studies may help determine impact of human disturbances in denning bears in the wild, for example, but could also help improve captive bear management decisions.
  • Recording of maternal denning behaviors, sensory and auditory cues in captive bear dens to better understand and anticipate maternal behaviors and sensory capacity in the den.5
  • Equipment validation using accelerometer collars placed (through voluntary positive reinforcement training) to help validate resting vs. active behavior sensors.1,2
  • Energetics studies using specially-designed metabolic chambers that the captive bear is conditioned (through voluntary positive reinforcement training) to use to measure energy expenditure during resting, locomotive and swimming activities.
  • Ecophysiology studies using blood collected voluntarily from bears trained to use a special blood sleeve.
  • Fecal hormone metabolite studies to better characterize cycling, and pregnancy determination.3,4

Data and information collected from captive bears provides a unique opportunity for obtaining repeatable, accessible, longitudinal sampling and observational data that is not readily obtained from wild bears due to their limited accessibility in their natural habitat. Just as importantly, this same training, interaction, and data collection can be used to enhance the welfare of the captive polar bears directly. Blood collection training can be used to obtain blood samples for medical evaluation, anesthesia induction, or to bank serum or plasma for disease surveillance or cub hand-rearing protocols. Sensory studies can help with design or modification of dens or habitats, and help make determinations of abnormal behaviors requiring intervention, as a few examples.

The benefits of SSP zoo participation are far-reaching and can greatly benefit the welfare of all polar bears, captive and wild. The research it supports will enable scientists and captive polar bear facilities better understand, predict, and measure such things as impacts of climate change, environmental toxins, and effects of human encroachment on polar bear populations, and will hopefully help improve their welfare by utilizing knowledge gained on a more global level.

Literature Cited

1.  Atwood TC, Cutting A, Durner GM, Jensen S, Middel KR, Obbard ME, Owen MA, Pagano AM, Robbins CT, Rode KD, Thiemann GW, Ware JV, Williams TM. Using tri-axial accelerometers to identify wild polar bear behaviors. Endang Species Res. 2017;32:19–33.

2.  Bromaghin J, Cutting A, Erlenbach J, Hash A, Jansen HT, Jensen S, Nicassio-Hiskey N, Owen M, Pagano AM, Robbins CT, Rode KD, Ware JV. Validation of mercury tip-switch and accelerometer activity sensors for identifying resting and active behavior in bears. Ursus. 2015;26(2):86–96.

3.  Curry E, Roth TL, MacKinnon KM, Stoops MA. Factors influencing annual fecal testosterone metabolite profiles in captive male polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Reprod Domest Anim. 2012;47 Suppl 6:222–5.

4.  Stoops MA, MacKinnon KM, Roth TL. Longitudinal fecal hormone analysis for monitoring reproductive activity in the female polar bear (Ursus maritimus). Theriogenology. 2012;78(9):1977–86.

5.  Van Gessel C. Polar bear mother-offspring interactions in maternity dens in captivity. Zoo Biol. 2015;34(5):453–9.


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

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