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How can you tell if a polar bear is pregnant?

Written by Crissi Lanier & Shasta Bray

It’s not as easy as one would think. Dr. Erin Curry with our Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) is committed to finding a way.

The Cincinnati Zoo is currently home to two polar bears, Little One and Berit. Little One is a 24-year-old male and, despite his name, is the taller of the two bears. Berit is a 16-year-old female. She has a longer and leader body and face and sharper features than Little One. Plus her ears tend to stick out a little more. Polar bears can reproduce until about 26 years old and Berit is at a prime age for reproduction.  She and Little One have been together since 2007 and are observed breeding every year, yet Berit has never had cubs. We aren’t giving up yet.

Berit and Little One (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Berit and Little One (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

In the meantime, Dr. Erin Curry has been working very hard in the CREW lab to develop a non-invasive pregnancy test for polar bears. It’s important for zoos to know when their polar bears are pregnant to be able to properly care for and monitor them. It is very difficult to determine if a female polar bear is pregnant because there is a period of time between mating and implantation of about 4 to 7 months, making it extremely difficult to know if breeding successfully resulted in a pregnant female. Polar bears also go through a period called pseudo-pregnancy, in which females show an increase in progesterone level similar to that of a pregnant female, but in the end there is no cub born. Pseudo-pregnancy also occurs in otters, wolverines, red pandas and some cat species. These factors make it extremely difficult to determine if a bear is pregnant. While there is not a definitive test yet, she has multiple projects underway that look promising.

Maybe the answer can be found in feces. Feces samples are very easy to collect without requiring invasive procedures. Samples from about 55 bears from 24 different institutions across North America and Canada are sent to Dr. Curry three times a year, packed in dry ice, to research any possible chemicals that may be present in pregnant bears but absent in others. She is also examining various protein levels in the feces and has identified five proteins that are higher in pregnant bears than in non-pregnant or male bears.  More research is needed and it is a very expensive test. The goal would be to develop a cost-effective and user-friendly test.

Polar bear producing a fecal sample (Photo: SRSLYGUYS)

Polar bear producing a fecal sample (Photo: SRSLYGUYS)

You may have heard about Elvis, the polar bear poo-sniffing dog. Elvis has been pretty successful so far in distinguishing between feces from pregnant and non-pregnant bears. Dr. Curry continues to try to determine what exactly Elvis smells that alerts him to the pregnancy. Read more about Elvis’ story here.

Elvis the beagle sniffs polar bear fecal samples.

Elvis the beagle sniffs polar bear fecal samples.

Another way to determine if a bear is pregnant could be through an ultrasound, but conducting one on a polar bear has its challenges. Dr. Curry along with Megan-Kate Ferguson (Curator of Animal Development and Training) and the bear keepers have been working with Berit to desensitize her to being touched so she can undergo medical procedures, such as ultrasounds, without sedation. Desensitization is a process by which the animal is touched through a training wall with an instrument, such as an ultrasound probe, over a period of time as the animal becomes less reactive to it and it becomes like a routine practice. The animal is rewarded throughout the process, called operant conditioning, to associate positive rewards with being touched. As the animal becomes more used to being touched, more actions and commands are added to eventually complete the behavior necessary for the procedure. It is a multi-step process that takes time and patience to develop an animal’s level of trust and comfort. Megan-Kate explains this process further in previous blog posts here.

Now that Berit is conditioned to being touched through the training wall while standing with her abdomen pressed up against it, the next step is to perform exploratory ultrasounds to find her uterus. Even though we know Berit is not currently pregnant, the ability to even find the uterus at all is important if performing ultrasounds is to become a reliable way of detecting pregnancy. Despite a polar bear’s large size, the uterus is small and very difficult to find. Polar bears have two uterine horns, each of which (in a non-pregnant state) is roughly the size of a pencil.

Berit, the female polar bear (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Berit, the female polar bear (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

First, Berit is called in to the training area and asked to stand up at the training wall. When she completes this, she is immediately rewarded with ground meat treats. Megan-Kate then hoses her lower abdomen down through the wall; performing an ultrasound is more successful on a wet bear because a more solid connection is made between the bear’s skin and the probe. There can’t be any air or space between the probe and the skin, which is difficult due to her thick, fur coat. Once Berit is sufficiently wet, Dr. Curry uses the probe to search for the uterus. A transducer on the probe emits sound waves into the body and picks up the echoes as they bounce back from organs. The ultrasound machine then translates the information into a two-dimensional image of the bear’s insides that Dr. Curry interprets. During this time, Berit receives treats and constant positive reinforcement as she stands very still and calm.

Dr. Curry prepares for the ultrasound procedure (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Dr. Curry prepares for the ultrasound procedure (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

On this day, Berit cooperated like a champ and Dr. Curry was able to find the bowels, but not the uterus. Maybe next time!  Even so, it was a successful day of continued training with Berit.

Dr. Curry conducts the ultrasound on Berit (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Dr. Curry conducts the ultrasound on Berit (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Solving the problems facing polar bear reproduction in zoos isn’t going to happen overnight, but it’s an ongoing challenge that Dr. Curry and the rest of the Zoo are committed to seeing through. Learn more here.

September 1, 2014   2 Comments

Meet Seyia: Our Newest Black Rhino

Meet Seyia (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Meet Seyia (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Seyia arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in August of 2013 and is currently the only black rhino we have here. She made the long journey all the way from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she was born. Seyia will celebrate her fifth birthday on September 28.

The black rhino, or hook-lipped rhino (Diceros bicornis), is native to eastern and central Africa.  Black rhinos are generally solitary animals, except for mothers with calves. However, males and females have a consort relationship during mating, and sometimes young adults will form loose associations with older individuals of either sex.

An herbivorous browser, black rhinos eat leafy plants, branches, shoots, thorny bushes and fruit.  You will often see browse, or large leafy branches, in Seyia’s exhibit, which is one of her favorite things. She also loves bananas, apples, kiwi and melon.  We often utilize these items for her training sessions and as enrichment scattered throughout her enclosure.  On special occasions, we might even give her whole watermelons to smash and eat.

Seyia with a snack (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Seyia with a snack (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Every rhino has its own personality and Seyia is a real sweetie, yet definitely has some sass and spunk to her.  She loves attention – getting a good rub down, taking a bubble bath, and most of all, interacting with her keepers during training sessions.

Seyia has learned so much over the past year here in Cincinnati. We train all of our animals to do lots of different husbandry behaviors, which helps us provide them with the best care possible. This is especially important when caring for rhinos. The black rhino has a reputation for being extremely aggressive, charging readily at threats. They have even been observed charging tree trunks and termite mounds in the wild! So it takes a very strong bond between keepers and their rhinos to accomplish all that we need to do with them. Only once this trust is formed between keeper and rhino can training begin.

Feeding Seyia treats

Feeding Seyia treats

We began the process by hand-feeding her lots of her favorite treats. After that, we began target training and moved forward from there. Seyia has now learned to move either side of her body up against the side of her indoor enclosure. This allows us to get a good look at her, bathe her, and even apply a Skin So Soft solution to help keep her skin moisturized and keep the flies away. She can place either front foot on a block for nail and foot care and is also trained to lay down on command. Right now, we are working with her on opening her mouth so we can check out those pearly whites.  Not only is all this training useful for husbandry and medical care, it’s also a form of enrichment for her.

Checking out Seyia's foot

Checking out Seyia’s foot

Training Seyia for mouth check-ups

Training Seyia for mouth check-ups

Seyia, often referred to as “little girl”, is not so little anymore! In fact, as of December 2013, she weighed in at a whopping 2,400 lbs. She is due to be weighed again this fall, and I guarantee she’s grown. Her body and horn are much bigger than when she first arrived.

How do we weigh a rhino? We use a set of truck scales. Our Maintenance department constructed a heavy duty “weight board” that we carefully place over the scales and the rhino can just step on up. We feed her some of her favorite snacks while we watch the number going up until we have an accurate weight. We do this a few times just to be extra certain it’s accurate. This is not only important to ensure a healthy weight, but also for our veterinary staff to know in case of an emergency or if they need to prescribe her any medications.

Next time you are at the Zoo, be sure to stop by the black rhino exhibit in Rhino Reserve (across from LaRosa’s) to see Seyia.  Also, be sure to come out for World Rhino Day on September 21 to celebrate and support rhino conservation efforts here at the Zoo and across the globe.

WRD Words

August 26, 2014   2 Comments

Passenger Pigeon Commemoration Gaining Momentum

We’ve been busy! Here’s an update on various projects and events we’ve been working on surrounding the commemoration of the centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction on September 1:

Passenger Pigeon Memorial Renovation

The Passenger Pigeon Memorial itself is of historic importance.  Built for the September 18, 1875 opening of the Zoo, it is the last remaining in a series of seven rectangular pagoda-type, tile-roofed buildings connected by wire summer cages in a complex 320 feet long, known as the Aviary or “Old Bird Run.”  The center building, larger than the others, was more elaborate, with pediments on each facade, and a short square tower capped with a pseudo-onion dome.  The six smaller units of the Aviary were demolished in 1974-75.  The large central pavilion, which was the actual final home of Martha, was retained, moved about 50 feet northwest of its original location, and restored as the Passenger Pigeon Memorial, opening in 1977.  Collectively with the Zoo’s Reptile House – the nation’s oldest Zoo building – and the Elephant House, built in 1906, the Passenger Pigeon Memorial constitutes the Zoo’s designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Postcard showign the original bird aviaries

Postcard showing the original bird aviaries

A reproduction of John Ruthven’s recently completed painting of Martha – the Last Passenger Pigeon, will draw visitors’ attention from the main Zoo path. 

John Ruthven's painting of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, will welcome visitors into the new space.

John Ruthven’s painting of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, will welcome visitors into the new space.

Inside the building, updated lighting and ceiling treatment will brighten up the space.  All new interpretive signage will comprise flat wall panels featuring rich visual images and appropriate narrative.

Passenger Pigeon Memorial under renovation

Passenger Pigeon Memorial under renovation

Inside the Passenger Pigeon Memorial under renovation

Inside the Passenger Pigeon Memorial under renovation

New walls ready for signage installation

New walls ready for signage installation

Putting the finishing touches on the restored doors

Putting the finishing touches on the restored doors

Artifacts such as a net and stool pigeon and wood carvings of a pair of passenger pigeons by our own Gary Denzler will be presented in the exhibit as well.

The new exhibit will feature wood carvings of a pair of passenger pigeons by Gary Denzler.

The new exhibit will feature wood carvings of a pair of passenger pigeons by Gary Denzler.

The update will speak to the conservation of endangered species, using the story of the passenger pigeon as a lesson from the past for a sustainable future. First, it will explain the story of the passenger pigeon and its extinction, why it happened, and the scope of this loss. Next, the exhibit will describe how the passenger pigeon’s extinction was a wake-up call that spurred the conservation movement in America, highlighting the stories of native species that were nearly lost, such as white-tailed deer.  Then, the exhibit will present examples of species’ conservation efforts in which the Zoo is involved, including the Sumatran rhino and Autumn buttercup. Finally, the exhibition will invite visitors to get involved.

The interpretive installation has begun!

The interpretive installation has begun!

The dedication of the newly renovated exhibit will take place on September 1 beginning at 12:30.

Fold the Flock: Paper Pigeons

We are in the midst of a folding frenzy! Thousands of paper passenger pigeons are being folded by summer campers, visitors, staff and volunteers, which will be suspended from the ceiling of the Education Center at the Zoo later this month.

Hard at work folding pigeons

Hard at work folding pigeons

A pile of paper passenger pigeons!

A pile of paper passenger pigeons!

Paper passenger pigeons hanging in the Education Center lobby

Paper passenger pigeons hanging in the Education Center lobby

Add your pigeon to the flock! Download the foldable passenger pigeon template, print it off (double-sided, 11 X 17, full color is best) and fold it. Then send it or bring it to the Education Center at the Zoo to be hung with thousands of others before September 1.

Passenger Pigeon Memorial Weekend

Along with the Ohio Ornithological Society (OOS), the Zoo is hosting a Passenger Pigeon Weekend symposium at the Zoo on August 29 & 30. Friday night will be a “Martinis with Martha” fundraiser to benefit the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) and the OOS Conservation Fund with food, drinks, live music and guest presentations. Saturday morning brings an assemblage of guest speakers with stories about lessons learned from the passenger pigeon, including Joel Greenberg (author of  A Feathered River Across the Sky), wildlife artist John Ruthven, Jim McCormac (author of Wild Ohio: The Best of our Natural Heritage) and Zoo Horticulturist Brian Jorg. And much, much more!

Registration is now open! Purchase your tickets here.

Barrows Conservation Lecture Series

On September 3, wildlife artist John Ruthven will speak as part of the Barrows Conservation Lecture Series at the Zoo. John Ruthven, naturalist, author, lecturer, and internationally acknowledged master of wildlife art, is often called the “20th Century Audubon.”

In 1974, John spearheaded the effort to save the last of the Zoo’s 19th Century bird pagoda’s – the one where “Martha,” the last of the passenger pigeons, had once lived. Through his leadership, and the sale of prints of his painting of “Martha,” the Zoo’s Passenger Pigeon Memorial was created.

John Ruthven with his painting, Martha - the Last Passenger Pigeon (Photo: Ron Ellis)

John Ruthven with his painting, Martha – the Last Passenger Pigeon (Photo: Ron Ellis)

Today, John has taken it a giant step forward, with his painting, “Martha – The Last Passenger Pigeon.” This print will be available for sale before and after his lecture. The price is $200.00. All prints are signed and numbered. The size is 30 x 20 inches.

Purchase tickets to John Ruthven’s lecture here.

To read the other posts in this series, click here.

August 25, 2014   No Comments