A polar bear on the sea ice

3M design engineers 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.

© Dick and Val Beck/Polar Bears International

12/7/2018 4:23:12 PM

Tag-a-Bear Challenge

Glue, Tape, or Burr on Fur: Make Something Stick! 

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 scientists with critical research, adding to our understanding and filling knowledge gaps on polar bear movements.

We caught up with BJ Kirschhoffer, our director of field operations, to talk 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.

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: 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. Design engineers 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).

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

A: We held an initial brainstorming and building session on November 28th. Teams met again on December 5th to share their results, hybridize and refine designs, and create a development plan. From there, 3M design engineers will conduct ongoing research into the most promising concepts.

After that, we hope to test the winning methods on polar bears in zoos, working in collaboration with our Arctic Ambassador Center partners. And, finally, we’ll follow up with tests on wild polar bears, working with permitted research teams.

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 U.S. Geological Survey (Dr. George Durner), researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Michelle St. Martin), and the University of Washington (Jennifer Stern) are providing expertise. Later, we’ll work with zoo partners and government research teams that work with wild polar bears.

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 engineers and designers. 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.

3M engineers listen to a presentation on the Tag-a-Bear Challenge.

3M design engineers listen to a presentation on the Tag-a-Bear Challenge. "You could see the wheels turning," BJ Kirschhoffer said.

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