San Diego, California - Animal care staff at the San Diego Zoo and the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research have been making unique preparations for a polar bear to take part in a U.S. Geological Survey project studying energy needs of polar bears that live in the Arctic. To participate, Tatqiq, a 14-year-old female polar bear, has been trained to wear a collar equipped with tracking devices while on exhibit at the Conrad Prebys Polar Bear Plunge. This collar training is an example of the role that zoos have in contributing to conservation science.
"As a zookeeper, to know that you are directly contributing to efforts to study and help polar bears in the wild, well, it gives me goose bumps," said Susan Purtell, lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo. "And at the same time, this research study provided an enriching experience for our polar bear, Tatqiq. It’s a great feeling and I’m very proud of what the Zoo’s polar bear team accomplished."
Starting in the fall of 2014, the Zoo’s polar bear keepers began training the 520-pound polar bear to wear a 2.5-pound collar that contains a battery, activity sensors and an accelerometer that measures three types of movement - up and down, side to side and back to front - 16 times per second.
The data recorded from the accelerometer on Tatqiq’s collar will be compared with video taken by USGS researchers of her movements and activity while she was wearing the collar on exhibit at the Zoo. Joining these two types of data will give scientists the ability to read the wave-graphs created by the accelerometer data and understand the behavior they represent, including swimming, pouncing, walking or running. By looking at data from collared polar bears in the wild, researchers will then be able to determine what the bears were doing without needing to observe them directly.
The polar bear’s remote Arctic sea ice habitat makes it nearly impossible to collect these kinds of detailed, direct observations of polar bear behavior in the wild. The data gained from accelerometers on collared polar bears in the Arctic will provide USGS scientists with new insights into the bears' daily behavior, movements, and energy demands, which will be used to better understand the effects of climate change on polar bears.
"Studying the behavior of polar bears that stay with the retreating sea ice during the summer and fall is very difficult," said Anthony Pagano, biologist with the U.S Geological Survey. "We are using this new technology to help us understand the behaviors and energy demands of bears that come on land during the summer versus those that summer on the sea ice. This will help us determine how declines in Arctic sea ice may influence long-term persistence."
Because San Diego Zoo animal care staff only has protected contact with Tatqiq, modifications were made to an area in the polar bear bedroom to allow the collar to be placed on Tatqiq’s neck while she slurps a honey-water treat. When she is wearing the collar, she is the only polar bear allowed in the exhibit.
The San Diego Zoo is home to three polar bears: Tatqiq, her brother Kalluk and another female, Chinook. Polar bears are a threatened species due to climate change-driven habitat loss.
Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.