Polar Bears: Getting Ready

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Chinook enjoys snow day July 2011.

As you may already know, we are anxiously waiting to see if polar bear Chinook will have cubs this fall (see post Polar Bears: Dare to Hope). While we don’t have absolute confirmation yet that she is pregnant, her behavior and hormonal profiles look good, and we are hopeful. Of course, “hope” is just part of what we need right now: we also need to get ready!

For most of this year we have been monitoring and analyzing Chinook’s behavior and hormones, and these studies have provided great insight into her reproductive cycle. But our research effort really shifts into high gear during the postpartum period. If Chinook has cubs, we will be monitoring the behavior of mother and offspring and closely studying their acoustic communication. As part of a broader study of maternal-care patterns in polar bears (supported in part by Polar Bears International), every move that Chinook makes will be recorded on our den camera, and every squawk, moan, and hum emitted by her cubs will also be recorded, analyzed spectrographically, and correlated with both the cubs’ and Chinook’s behavior.

But what’s most important to the success of this research, and to the successful rearing and care of mother and cubs, is that all of our work is done without disturbing the bears. This requires thoughtful planning and making sure everything is in place BEFORE Chinook decides to go into her den to prepare for a birth. Every piece of equipment must be tested beforehand, because we can’t go back in and fix anything once Chinook has settled in. At this point, we are almost ready, and yes, we are very, very hopeful!

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Su Lin: Cub.