Zoos and Polar Bear Conservation Research

Tatqiq shakes off after a swim at the San Diego Zoo.

Tatqiq shakes off after a swim at the San Diego Zoo.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage, Alaska. This meeting included presentations from scientists doing research throughout the north Pacific, as well as the Bering, Beaufort, and Chukchi seas. Climate change and human activities present tremendous challenges to certain species of wildlife in these remote marine and coastal locations. I was really impressed by the research efforts and ingenuity on display by scientists studying the lives of the whales, walruses, sea birds, and other wildlife living in the region.

While at the conference, I presented results from our research on the hearing sensitivity of the polar bear (see post, Can You Hear Me Now?). This research, sponsored by Polar Bears International, is a first-ever attempt to thoroughly describe the hearing capability of the species.

Interest in polar bear hearing developed out of concern that female polar bears in maternal dens on the North Slope of Alaska might be disturbed by the noise emitted from extraction industry activities in the same area. Although we still have much to learn on this issue, our research (a collaborative effort with Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute) has shown that polar bears do hear quite well. Once our results are accepted for publication in a scientific journal, I can go into more detail in a future post.

After presenting our work, I was struck by how much positive feedback I received, as well as how different our research was compared to most of the other fine work that was presented. The polar bear hearing study exemplified research that could only be done in the zoological setting. Although the majority of conservation research is best conducted in the habitat where the animals live, sometimes the best information is achieved in a setting where the animals can be viewed up close and personal or where the relationship between keepers and the animals in their charge might enhance sample or data collection. This is the case for the polar bear hearing study, as well as several other polar bear projects, and those with other species.

At the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, we conduct research all around the world, but we also focus on the species that live right here at the San Diego Zoo or at the Wild Animal Park. For examples, please visit www.sandiegozoo.org/conservation.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

Watch video of polar bears in Canada and a peek at the changes being made at the Zoo’s Polar Bear Plunge.

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