Burr on Fur tracker on a polar bear

Photo: Emily Ringer / Polar Bears International

Blizzard, a polar bear at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, is helping his wild counterparts by testing the potential of small, non-permanent tracking devices that stick to a polar bear's fur.

New Masterplan Guides Research with Zoo Partners

By Dr. Thea Bechshoft, Staff Scientist



26 Jan 2022

A pregnancy test for polar bears? Methods to help ensure genetic diversity? A tool to assess the reproductive health of wild bears? Scientists at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden are using cutting-edge technology to understand and improve reproduction in polar bears, working with samples from more than 60 polar bears at 31 zoos.

The study is a great example of how research on polar bears in zoos and aquariums can directly benefit their wild peers.

As a field biologist, I know first-hand that  studying polar bears in the wild can be logistically demanding and even dangerous. And some research, like the reproductive studies, 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.

Polar bear at the zoo with dye spots and a Burr on Fur tracking device

Photo: C. Breiter / Assiniboine Park Zoo

A polar bear at the Assiniboine Park Zoo sporting dye spots and a Burr on Fur crimp plate tracking device

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.

A polar bear sniffing meat and eating lard at a zoo

Photo: Devon Sabo / Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

A polar bear at the Columbus Zoo sniffs meat and eats lard as part of a study on macronutrient requirements of polar bears.

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). Composed of zoo professionals and polar bear researchers, including myself and three of my colleagues at Polar Bears International, 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, 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.”

Read the Press Release for more information on the Polar Bear Research Council 2022 Masterplan here, and download the Masterplan, here.