Category — Polar Bear International
According to Elvis, it’s going to be another disappointing year for polar bear births. There is no pregnancy test for polar bears, but Elvis, a 3-year old beagle who lives at IronHeart High Performance Working Dogs, is being evaluated on his ability to diagnose pregnancy by smelling fecal samples (to read more about Elvis and his training, click here). Polar bears experience low reproductive rates world-wide but are exceptionally challenging to study because traditional methods of pregnancy detection, such as progesterone analysis, don’t distinguish pregnancy from pseudo-pregnancy this species. The 17 potential polar bear moms involved in this year’s Elvis study reside in zoos as close as Columbus and as far as Copenhagen. Last year, Elvis was 93% accurate in his pregnancy predictions. If his diagnostic accuracy is similar to last year, we’ll be lucky if just one or two bears have cubs.
But while Elvis sniffs poop, scientists at the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) are using cutting-edge research to figure out which components of a fecal sample Elvis might be recognizing in an effort to develop a laboratory-based pregnancy test. A pregnancy test would allow them to determine where the reproductive process is failing so that potential causes can be addressed. A polar bear pregnancy test wouldn’t just be useful for bears in zoos- it could also help their wild cousins. Since the test would rely on a fecal sample, it could be used to non-invasively monitor wild populations of polar bears, whose numbers are predicted to decline.
Unfortunately, the Elvis test showed that “Berit”, the Cincinnati Zoo’s female is not pregnant again this year and so far, there’s been no other word of cub arrivals. Polar bears can give birth anytime from October to January, so Elvis will need to wait a few more weeks to find out how he performed.
To make a donation to CREW’s polar bear research, please visit the Polar Bear Challenge webpage. Donations made by Dec 31st will be matched dollar for dollar by the Young Family Foundation.
December 10, 2014 2 Comments
Elvis has spent the past three weeks sniffing fecal samples from polar bears around the country, making his predictions on which bears might be pregnant. Elvis is trained to pause and sit immediately when he detects a pregnancy—and does not show interest at samples from non-pregnant bears. Last week, Elvis was presented multiple times with two separate samples (collected on 10/12/13 and 10/20/13), from the Cincinnati Zoo’s female polar bear, Berit. Unfortunately, Elvis did not show interest in either sample, indicating she may not be expecting cubs this fall.
The sniffer dog project is part of a larger effort to study reproduction in polar bears. Scientists at CREW have been monitoring polar bears since 2008 and have analyzed over 14,000 fecal samples from 55 polar bears living in North American zoos. In addition to the Elvis test, we’ve been measuring Berit’s fecal hormone levels and performing ultrasound examinations in attempts to gain more information about her pregnancy status. Taken together, it seems that Berit is probably experiencing a pseudo-pregnancy, also known as a false pregnancy. Pseudo-pregnancy occurs when a female’s hormones, namely progesterone, increase to levels similar to those of a true pregnancy. However, in a pseudo-pregnancy, no fetus is present. Like pregnant bears, pseudo-pregnant females often gain weight (Berit gained almost 200 pounds this season!) and may behave like they’re pregnant, building nests and spending more time in their dens.
We’re not sure why pseudo-pregnancy occurs in polar bears but it seems to be a common phenomenon in many females we’ve monitored. A goal of CREW’s polar bear research is to develop a test to differentiate pseudo-pregnancy from true pregnancy. If Elvis proves successful, the next step is to identify the specific compound in the fecal samples that Elvis is signaling on and then develop a laboratory-based method to measure it. A test that distinguishes pregnancy from pseudo-pregnancy could potentially be applicable to other species that experience pseudo-pregnancy, such as endangered cat species, otters, and red pandas.
Since the sniffer dog project is still in the testing phase, we are not making any major management changes based on Elvis’s predictions. Berit’s keepers continue to keep a close eye on her and she still has access to a den and extra bedding if she wants it. Berit has never produced offspring, so while Elvis’s predictions are disappointing, they are not a total surprise. Berit is of prime reproductive age for a polar bear (14 years) and we have not lost hope that she may have cubs next year!
November 19, 2013 2 Comments
It has been years since the Cincinnati Zoo has had polar bear cubs born here, 24 years to be exact. Berit, our female, and Little One, our male, have been given every opportunity to “get the job done” on their own, but their mating has not produced a cub. So, we are increasing the couple’s chances by giving Berit two small hormone injections, 90 hours apart from each other, to induce a healthy ovulation.
The first injection was scheduled to be given, appropriately, on Valentine’s Day. Because the bears were never conditioned to allow hands-on medical care, the bear line ladies (Lisa Vollmer, Debbie Loebker, Lisa Potter, Tanya Dietz) and I spent the past three and a half weeks working diligently every day, twice a day, to get Berit ready. In that time we were able to train Berit to come to us on command and present her nose and shoulders. These behaviors would allow us to administer the hormone injections without needing to use anesthesia. (See my previous post about the training.)
Yesterday was “The Day” we had all been waiting for. And it worked!!! Berit was great. She came in like we asked, leaned in, and Veterinary Technician Amy Long was able to give her the first injection. She was a bit startled and left the training session, but it didn’t take her long to come back in. When she did, we gave her all of her favorite treats to reward her. We didn’t want the last thing she remembered to be negative so it was imperative that she came back into the training den and ended on a positive note.
We’re over the first hurdle, but we still have a long way to go. We continued the training this morning and Berit came into the training den right away. She seemed a little nervous to lean in but she did and it was an absolutely wonderful session! I am so excited for Monday now and am feeling very confident that we will be able to get both injections done on time. What a good girl she is!
Now it’s up to Little One to put on the moves and have a romantic Valentine’s Day weekend planned. I talked to the keepers about playing a little Barry White or Marvin Gaye to get them in the mood! Hopefully we will continue to live up to our title of the “Sexiest Zoo in America!”
February 15, 2013 5 Comments