Teamwork Makes the Dream Work for Polar Bear Conservation

Photo Credit: Chicago Zoological Society

It’s illegal to lock your car in Churchill, Manitoba. Why? Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, and at any moment, you may need to jump into the nearest vehicle to remain safe from any polar bears wandering through town.

You see, Churchill, Manitoba is located on the Hudson Bay where large concentrations of polar bears gather at the beginning of hunting season in early November. Polar bears pass through the town as they head to the banks of the Hudson Bay to wait for the ice to form. They need the ice to hunt. Polar bears sit atop ice floes where seals have carved out breathing holes, patiently waiting for a seal to pop up so they can grab their meal.

The polar bear migration back to the sea typically peaks during the first full week in November, which is why it was chosen as Polar Bear Week. This week is all about recognizing the intertwined fates of sea ice and polar bears. Here at the Chicago Zoological Society, we think it is also a great time to highlight some of the latest news on polar bear research and conservation.

Teaming up for Polar Bears
The Chicago Zoological Society (CZS) is part of the Species Survival Plan, or SSP, for polar bears. The SSP was developed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), of which CZS is a member, and ensures the survival of species like polar bears. As members of the polar bear SSP, CZS cooperates with other members to manage the genetic diversity and long-term sustainability of polar bears. That means potentially moving bears so they can be paired with good reproductive matches, exploring artificial insemination techniques, and training bears in husbandry behaviors that help gather data on baseline polar bear health and behavior.

Recently, CZS has joined with other zoos, scientists, veterinarians, conservation organizations, and federal agencies in creating the Polar Bear Research Council (PBRC). The goal of the PBRC is to “coordinate and facilitate conservation science with zoo and aquarium polar bears that support the management and conservation of polar bears in the Arctic.” Some of the areas of research the PBRC is looking to expand are how polar bears use their energy, seasonal variations in physiology, reproduction, sensory ecology, and non-invasive technology to monitor polar bear health.

These areas of research have real-world applications. For example, understanding how polar bears use energy will give scientists more knowledge about how the loss of sea ice affects a polar bear’s ability to balance calorie intake versus expenditure as its hunting opportunities become more scarce. Zoos come into play in our ability to train polar bears to voluntarily wear collars with accelerometers to measure their activity, as well as participate in research in which we can measure their energy use while walking on a treadmill and measure oxygen use while swimming through special chambers. These research projects expand our knowledge of polar bear energetics. 

Photo Credit: Chicago Zoological Society

International Conservation Efforts
The PBRC is also working to gain permits to trade polar bears and polar bear samples (fur, semen, tissue) with other countries to maintain a sustainable population within zoos. Polar bears are a marine mammal and therefore protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They are also classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. These classifications are in place to protect animals and their habitats through legislation and regulation that prohibit animals from being taken or imported. However, there are special circumstances that allow for legally permitted taking and importation of protected animals such as polar bears. These circumstances include scientific research.

Polar bears are unique in that the immediate threats to their survival are not things that can be addressed through local or even state/providential legislation, such as hunting restrictions or habitat protections. The loss of sea ice due to climate change has a direct impact on a polar bear’s ability to hunt and requires global action. The “research population” that the PBRC and Polar Bear SSP are designating will give scientists and conservationists the knowledge needed to help polar bears survive climate change.

Our Contribution
As part of the Polar Bear Research Council and Polar Bear SSP, the Chicago Zoological Society is committing to several projects that will help maintain a healthy, sustainable population in zoos as well as contribute to the body of knowledge that will help save wild polar bears. Earlier this year, we produced one of the first-ever CT images of a polar bear when our resident male, Hudson, was given a CT scan as part of his routine check-up. The images give the scientific community details on the internal organs and other structures of a live, healthy polar bear for comparison to other polar bears in the future. We were also able to get a semen sample that will help in developing assistive reproductive techniques.

In the coming years, CZS will be working on other projects related to polar bear reproduction, non-invasive ecological monitoring techniques, and more. We hope that the collective effort of zoos, the scientific and conservation communities, governments, and caring people like you can secure a strong future for polar bears.

Written by Yvette Méndez, CIG, CIGT, CIT, Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo

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Posted: 11/5/2019 3:43:38 PM by Sean Keeley

CZS & Brookfield Zoo

Since the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934, the Chicago Zoological Society has had an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world. Learn more about the animals, people, and research that make up CZS here at our blog.


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