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.

Testing New Tracking Technology

By Emily Ringer, Senior Manager of Communications and Advocacy



13 Apr 2021

Last week, a tech challenge to invent a better way to track polar bears moved out of the lab and onto the fur of a polar bear at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, one of seven North American zoos participating in the project. Blizzard, a 25-year-old male bear, tested out a new prototype tag created by 3M scientists through a voluntary Polar Bears International challenge. The pilot tags are non-permanent and combine currently available satellite transmitters with innovative ways to attach them. 

During Blizzard’s annual vet exam, his dedicated keepers carefully secured the tag to the fur between his shoulder blades. Using a go-pro and photographs, they extensively documented the process to share with polar bear scientists and engineers. When they stepped away, the tag, roughly the size of a mandarin orange, looked minuscule against the backdrop of such a grand animal.  

Researcher applies tracking device to a polar bear's fur

Photo: Emily Ringer / Polar Bears International

The following morning, Blizzard was roaming about showing no notice of the tracking device securely fastened to his fur, but by the afternoon his keepers found the tag buried in his bedding. The tag’s life was short lived, but in the spirit of science, all information is good information!

“We know there will be a mix of failure and success in trying something no one has ever done before,” says Geoff York, Polar Bears International's senior director of conservation. “A quick failure, while not ideal, at least gives our team immediate feedback that we can use to improve options for the next deployment. Learning how and why tags fail is a key aspect of the zoo-based testing of this new technology—as we can closely observe the bear and how the prototypes perform in various conditions. Once a tagged bear is released in the wild, researchers may not see it again for several years.”

York added that 3M scientists had created four different “Burr on Fur” prototypes that are now in the testing phase. Two prototypes were tested on wild polar bears in the Western Hudson Bay population last fall. Of those, one version proved successful and the other failed. The prototype tested at the Point Defiance Zoo was a version that had not been tested before.

A tracking device crimped into a polar bear's fur

Photo: Emily Ringer / Polar Bears International

Taking part in this project is just one way in which zoo bears can serve as important ambassadors for their wild counterparts—filling key knowledge gaps in polar bear ecology, helping to validate new conservation technology, and connecting people around the world to the species at large.

Learn more about the Burr on Fur project here.

In addition to the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, other zoos participating in the Burr on Fur project include the Kansas City Zoo, Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, Assiniboine Park Zoo, San Diego Zoo, Como Zoo, and Oregon Zoo. All are part of our Arctic Ambassador Center network. The Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s Dr. Holly Reed Conservation Fund and the Kansas City Zoo helped fund the project.