Zoo’s CREW Helps Polar Bears

Posted January 26, 2022

Cincinnati Zoo CREW Helps Pave the Way for Zoo Polar Bears to Benefit Their Wild Cousins

A new Masterplan by the Polar Bear Research Council identifies the most critical studies needed for polar bear conservation; from energetics to nutrition to reproduction, polar bears in zoos can help fill knowledge gaps that benefit their wild peers.

Cincinnati, OH— January 26, 2022 — The Polar Bear Research Council (PBRC), which includes scientists from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), today released a Masterplan that prioritizes zoo-based polar bear research projects needed to help protect the world’s polar bears.

“It’s immensely gratifying to realize that zoo-based studies can play such a critical role in polar bear conservation,” says Terri Roth, Ph.D., Vice President of Conservation and Science at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and co-chair of the PBRC. “Our goal with the plan is to provide expert guidance that will help zoos and aquariums fill knowledge gaps and support the key priorities of field researchers.”

PBRC is composed of zoo professionals and polar bear researchers and focuses on keeping research current with emerging scientific questions regarding polar bears in the wild in these four main areas: Field Techniques, Health and Welfare, Physiology and Behavioral Ecology, and Reproductive Physiology.

Zoos fill a unique niche essential to studying species that live in extreme habitats;  they can also help develop and calibrate new research methods and technologies before they are deployed in the field. Bears in managed care can be repeatedly observed and sampled over long time periods—allowing sample size and replication not possible in the wild.

Collaborative efforts to understand and protect polar bears couldn’t come at a more urgent time. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that just 26,000 polar bears remain across their range, which includes the U.S. (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway (Svalbard). The polar bears’ continued survival depends on human action to transition away from burning fossil fuels for energy like coal, oil, and natural gas. Zoo-based energetics research in partnership with field researchers was pivotal in the groundbreaking report clarifying our need to go green in every way possible in our daily lives to help save polar bears from extinction.

Scientists are making significant progress studying polar bear nutrition, energetics, and reproduction in zoos. Examples of PBRC-endorsed studies recently completed or currently in progress include:

  1. Better understanding fur growth as a tool for studying the behavior and physiology of wild bears:  Understanding fur growth patterns helps scientists better interpret stress levels, contaminant exposure, and nutritional status using hair samples collected from polar bears in the wild.
  2. Improving bear nutrition and health:  In combination with studies of wild bears, feeding trials with zoo polar bears demonstrated that polar bears have low protein requirements and that maintaining bears on lower protein diets is critical to support long-term kidney health.
  3. Development of new tracking tags: Zookeepers and Veterinary staff are attaching prototypes of new, minimally invasive, temporary tracking tags that attach to bear fur, developed by 3M and Polar Bears International.
  4. Improved understanding of reproduction: Scientists at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden are using cutting-edge technology, such as advanced proteomics and multiplex analyses, to understand and improve reproduction in polar bears.

“By collecting blood opportunistically at annual health examinations and, more recently, by obtaining blood samples voluntarily through advancements in animal training, we can now investigate a wide variety of hormones and biomarkers on a temporal scale from the same individual,” says Dr. Erin Curry, CREW Reproductive Physiologist and PBRC Reproductive Advisor. “Establishing species-specific concentrations of these biomarkers will provide insight into reproductive processes, the potential causes of reproductive failure, and will facilitate enhanced monitoring of wild populations and how they respond to a changing environment”.

With funding from the Institute of Museums and Library Services and the Morris Animal Foundation, CREW has already received more than 400 banked blood samples collected from ~60 polar bears at 20 different zoos throughout the U.S.!

Polar bears in zoos and aquariums play an essential role in conservation research that directly benefits their wild peers. The PBRC’s goals are to 1) facilitate the use of zoo and aquarium- housed polar bears to better characterize basic biology and to advance scientific methodologies for comparison and application to wild polar bears; 2) support research that is necessary for maintaining a viable, sustainable zoo population for scientific research with application to the conservation of wild bears; and 3) build capacity within member institutions to participate in priority scientific research efforts.

“I’ve spent most of my career conducting research on wild polar bears across the Arctic, which has confirmed the threat of global warming and that we must reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in order to protect future generations of polar bears,” said Steven C. Amstrup, Ph.D., chief scientist at Polar Bears International. “My experience has also shown that some vital studies simply cannot be conducted in the wild, and findings from zoo-based research are crucial to informing population estimates, policy, and more.”