Marissa Krouse photographs Berit at the Cincinnati Zoo with a 3D camera as part of PBI's body condition study. By mounting two cameras next to each other and programming them to take pictures simultaneously, the research team is able to simulate the image as viewed by both the left and right eyes.

6/13/2016 11:07:05 PM

Zoo Bears Help Their Wild Counterparts

By Marissa Krouse, Programs Manager 

On a mild spring day in late May, I visited the North Carolina Zoo to take 2D photographs of their male polar bear, Nikita. I was there to help test the accuracy of a new, non-invasive field approach that will let scientists and wildlife managers determine the body condition of wild polar bears in remote areas without handling them.

As part of a citizen science project developed by Dr. Steven Amstrup and Polar Bears International, with support from Purdue University and the University of Wyoming, we are developing these methods to monitor wild polar bear populations through photography.

Nikita was the perfect model. I managed to take several great photos before he went looking for Anana, the NC Zoo’s female polar bear on exhibit—and before the zoo’s visitors came looking for both of them.

My photos will be analyzed by our research team and then compared with data collected by zoo staff during one of Nikita’s routine health exams. While Nikita was under anesthesia, the zoo’s veterinary and animal care teams used a protocol for measuring his body length, neck width, foot length, girth, and current weight—all needed to determine his body condition and size.  

Why take photos at zoos? In order to assess the body condition and size of wild polar bears through photographs, we need to test the methods and calibrate the equipment by taking photos of polar bears of known size and body condition. To find zoos interested in helping with this project, we reached out to the conservation research teams at zoos within PBI’s Arctic Ambassador Center network.

Polar bears are difficult to study in the wild. Those members of our Arctic Ambassador Center network with polar bears in their care offer a unique opportunity to collect this data in a controlled setting. We worked with a total of seven zoos to collect the needed measurements during routine physical exams. 

We followed up by using 2D and 3D cameras to take photos of the measured bears. We captured images from various angles and on the same plane as the bear, if at all possible. We did this from the visitor’s perspective as the bears freely roamed their exhibit. Of course, we also relied on the help of staff and docents to temporarily keep the view free of visitors to help us get the right shot. 

Keepers who have built trust and strong relationships with their bears were a big help, too.  They were able troubleshoot if we ran into challenges. For example, they let us know how and where in the exhibit the bears choose to spend their time. They were also able to offer favorite enrichment items in a manner that facilitated the photographer (me) actually getting on the same plane as the bear. These teams did an excellent job of working with the animals and moving people around and explaining why we were here…. It takes a village!

As a former zookeeper, I find it exciting to be working on the front lines of research that will help polar bears in the wild. I also love the chance to connect with the incredibly hard-working and talented teams that dedicate much of their lives to caring for these animals every day.

PBI’s network of Arctic Ambassador Centers include leading zoos, museums, science centers, and aquariums that deliver a powerful message: "Together we can save polar bears and the Arctic, but we must act soon." They educate the public about climate change and solutions and provide leadership for carbon emission reductions in their communities. 

This pilot program has been successful because of the support and participation of animal care and research teams at the North Carolina Zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, the Indianapolis Zoo, Louisville Zoo, and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. The animal husbandry training that takes place at these AZA-accredited institutions facilitates this conservation research and engages the animals in their own healthcare. It is truly inspiring to see the teamwork across departments of these AACs. PBI would like to thank everyone who has made this important work possible over the years. 

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