A polar bear strides across the sea ice.

3M scientists are volunteering their time to help find a temporary way of attaching a small tracking device to a polar bear's fur. The method must be able to withstand Arctic conditions, including extreme cold, saltwater, and snow. Polar Bears International is testing the prototypes this fall on wild polar bears in Canada’s Western Hudson Bay population.

© Mike Lockhart/Polar Bears International

12/8/2020 1:05:45 PM

Q&A: Burr on Fur

Some of the brightest minds at 3M, the company that invented Post-it Notes, have undertaken a tech challenge posed by Polar Bears International: They’re helping to develop a minimally invasive way of attaching a tracking device to a polar bear. The results could help polar bear scientists with critical research. BJ Kirschhoffer, our director of field operations, talks with us about the project and its potential.

Q: Let’s start with a little background information. Why do scientists track polar bears? How does it help polar bear conservation?

A: Tracking devices provide vital information on polar bears, allowing researchers to follow them even when they’re far out on the sea ice or wandering in 24 hours of winter darkness. Remote tracking allows us to understand the movement patterns and behavior of polar bears, along with other information such as habitat use, responses to changing sea ice conditions, and population boundaries. It’s critical data in a changing Arctic.

Q: Are there different kinds of tracking devices?

A: Traditionally, scientists used satellite collars to follow polar bears. But these can only be used on adult females. Adult males can’t be collared because their necks are as wide as their heads—the collars slip right off! Scientists also avoid collaring subadult bears because young bears grow too quickly.

To solve this problem and learn more about these important groups of polar bears, scientists have been testing GPS ear tags and implants as potential ways to track polar bears. Over time, as technology has advanced, basic GPS tags have become much smaller, opening new possibilities. As technology further improves, the tags could eventually replace the collars now used on adult females as well.

Traditional satellite collar for polar bears
A traditional satellite collar for polar bears. These can only be used on adult female bears.

Q: Why is there a need for a new way to attach tracking devices?

A: At present, ear tags must be permanently attached, and implants require minor surgery to place the tag under the skin. Adhesive tracking devices would be temporary and non-invasive. Biologists always strive to obtain data with the least impact as possible.

Q: How did 3M get involved?

A: My father, Jon Kirschhoffer, is a scientist there—he’s an advanced research specialist in the 3M Corporate Research Systems Lab. I grew up knowing all about the different kinds of tape and sticky products that 3M makes. We had drawers and drawers full of them! One of my colleagues, Geoff York, our senior director of conservation, has long been interested in the possibility of developing a tracking device that could stick to a polar bear. So I asked my dad if the 3M tech community could figure out how to do that and they rose to the challenge. They liked the environmental aspect and the chance to contribute to polar bear conservation.

Q: Are there any special challenges involved or hurdles to overcome?

A: There are actually quite a few special requirements that make this an interesting problem to solve. The 3M team will need to develop a way to attach a transmitter to the fur or skin of a polar bear. The method must be non-toxic and non-permanent—and it must last for seven months to a year in Arctic conditions. Further, the attachment method can’t interfere with a polar bear’s thermoregulation or damage the bear’s skin or fur long-term. And, finally, it must be able to withstand environmental stresses including extreme cold, water, salt-water, snow, and abrasions (caused by a polar bear rolling or rubbing against something).

A polar bears on the sea iceArctic conditions present unique challenges for the tracking devices.

Q: What is the time frame for development? How soon do you expect to see a solution?

A: 3M scientists and engineers began with a brainstorming session in November 2018 and presented their initial ideas in early December. After that, they conducted research into the most promising concepts. From there, they narrowed the choices to a “burr on fur” approach—which will allow the device to latch onto and “stick” to a polar bear’s fur like a burr. Due to COVID-19, much of the physical work was put on hold this year while 3M's employees worked from home. But the team modeled designs digitally, coming up with four strong solutions. Based on those designs, 3M created four prototypes for us. We’re looking at opportunities to test and deploy them this fall and early next year.

Example of a tracking device
One of the four "burr on fur" prototypes designed to stick to a polar bear's fur.

Q: How will researchers attach the tracking devices to wild polar bears?

A: We are testing the prototypes this fall as part of ongoing tagging and tracking work on Canada’s Western Hudson Bay polar bear population in collaboration with Dr. Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta. We also plan to test them on other wild bears as opportunities arise. In addition, we are planning to test the devices on zoo bears, working with partners in our Arctic Ambassador Center network of zoos and aquariums. These centers are committed to polar bear conservation, working with us on outreach as well as research projects. In the case of the tags, deploying them on zoo bears will enable researchers to closely monitor how they perform under various conditions.

Q: How long will it take researchers to know if the devices work?

A: The tracking devices are designed to last for 270 days. While on the bears, they will transmit location information and other data. At the end of the 270-day period, unless the bear molts prior and the tag drops off, we’ll have data on which of the four prototypes performed best.

Q: Are there any other partners in this project?

A: In addition to staff and scientists from Polar Bears International (myself, Geoff York, and Alysa McCall), researchers from the University of Alberta (Dr. Andrew Derocher), the U.S. Geological Survey (Dr. George Durner), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Michelle St. Martin), and the University of Washington (Dr. Kristin Laidre and Jennifer Stern) are providing expertise. In addition to the volunteer efforts of 3M, the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium's Dr. Holly Reed Conservation Fund and the Kansas City Zoo have provided funding.

Q: Any parting thoughts?

A: I’m excited that this project could provide a real breakthrough in how we study wild polar bears and the fact that it will be minimally invasive. Also, it’s an honor to have the opportunity to work with the 3M team, including my dad. The creativity and solutions-forward nature of these people are exactly what polar bears need. This is a volunteer project on the part of the company and it’s incredible to see the commitment on the part of everyone involved. I’m a gadget guy myself—I love finding ways to make technology work in Arctic settings—so this project is right up my alley.

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