polar bear


What to Eat When There’s Nothing to Eat?

Bear ambassador Mi Ton Teiow finds relatively shallow snow, but no food, as the northern winter begins.

Bear ambassador Mi Ton Teiow finds relatively shallow snow, but no food, as the northern winter begins.

The answer? Nothing.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that some bears spend long periods of time in dens, inactive and not consuming significant amounts of food or water. Some bears in some locations survive eating nothing by doing almost nothing. They become inactive, which is sometimes called winter sleep or hibernation. Although you may be familiar with this aspect of bear ecology, have you thought about how incredible it is? These big mammals can go without eating or drinking for months, sometimes while birthing and nursing cubs, yet wake up without bedsores or weakened muscles! This is why the physiology of bears, including that of giant pandas and polar bears, has been a hot field of research.

The only way for a wild American black bear to survive for months without food in the northern U.S. is to save energy by hibernating in a safe, insulated den. The hole to the right of the tree trunk is the only obvious indication that there is an American black bear below the snow.

The only way for a wild American black bear to survive for months without food in the northern US is to save energy by hibernating in a safe, insulated den. The hole to the right of the tree trunk is the only obvious indication that there is an American black bear below the snow.

Although all female bears seclude themselves in dens to give birth to cubs, not all bears enter dens for long periods of time. There’s even variation within species in whether or not individual bears remain in dens or for how long. Researchers have found that in general, bears spend long periods in dens not to avoid cold temperatures, but to reduce their metabolic requirements when there is not enough food to survive environmental conditions. So, in the southern part of their range where their energy balance can remain positive, individual brown bears, Asiatic black bears, and American black bears may not den except to give birth. At last year’s meeting of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (see post, A Whimsical Bear Ambassador Arrives), Lorraine Scotson and Dave Garshelis reported that some sun bears might den for periods of time in the most northern parts of their range, meaning that non-reproductive denning may occur among at least half of the world’s bear species.

The holes melted in the snow are made by the black bear’s respiration.

The holes melted in the snow are made by the black bear’s respiration.

The giant panda is one bear species that has not been known to den in response to a relative lack of food, and perhaps it cannot do so. During the rare times when all the bamboo plants in an area have flowered and then died, the giant pandas have left the area in search of food; they have not entered dens. Perhaps this is because a bamboo die-off is unpredictable from the giant panda’s point of view, or perhaps this is because a giant panda eating bamboo cannot build up sufficient energy reserves to be able to wait out the lean time in a den, or maybe both factors play a role.

Adult polar bears also do not enter dens solely to avoid food shortages. Pregnant polar bears do spend prolonged periods of time in dens, but biologists think other adult polar bears don’t do so. However, polar bears in some populations regularly fast for extended periods when sea ice conditions don’t allow them to hunt. As for other bears, anything that causes a polar bear to expend more energy, whether inside or outside of a den, or to fast for a longer period of time, makes it less likely that the bear will survive. Climate change is doing just that by reducing the amount of sea ice available to polar bears: the bears expend more energy and go without eating for a longer period of time, creating a great challenge for the conservation of this species (see Polar Bears, Climate Change, and Mi Ton Teiow).

Hibernating bears often line their den with leaves, twigs, and grasses, insulating themselves from the cold ground and conserving additional energy.

Hibernating bears often line their den with leaves, twigs, and grasses, insulating themselves from the cold ground and conserving additional energy.

The Bear Specialist Group’s Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow recently made a visit to the northern US, where he found plenty of snow but little food for bears. After a short stay in this area, which receives an average of 45 inches of snow per year, the ambassador returned (fled?) back to sunny San Diego, where the last measurable snow fell on the city in 1967. The odds are good that Ambassador Mi will not be snow camping in San Diego any time soon.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Courtship in Front of the Camera.


Science for Kids: Observing

Do you remember watching panda Su Lin when she was born in 2005?

We are coming up on bear pregnancy-watch season at the San Diego Zoo! Both our giant panda Bai Yun and polar bear Chinook have bred this year, and we are anxiously awaiting signs that they are pregnant. Our fingers are crossed, and all the tools we use to monitor their status are just about ready to go. Of course, we are all excited by the prospect of bear cubs in 2012, and I think it’s safe to say that we will all enjoy the opportunity we have to look into the bears’ dens and observe these ursid moms and their cubs.

An important aspect of our conservation research is the study of animal behavior, which tells us much about the biology of the animals we love and provides us with tools to assess how the animals are doing and what a “typical” animal should be doing during important phases of its life. The study of animal behavior can provide tremendous insights into a species’ biology and gives us tools we can use to help conserve them. While the behavioral data we collect fits into a scientifically devised systematic framework, there is much to be gained from simple observation as well.

I have tried to share the joy of observing animals with my kids in hopes that it will also provide a connection with science and what it means to be a scientist. Often, when we are out and about in our neighborhood or at the park near our home, we stop to watch what the various animals we see are doing. It is amazing how exciting and exotic a squirrel can seem if you really stop and take a few minutes to watch the way it interacts with its environment, the way it responds to your presence, and the various ways it vocalizes and flags its tail to send signals to other animals around it. One of our other favorite animal-watching activities is going on a “bug safari,” which simply entails going into our backyard and turning over a rock. This simple excursion provides a window into the fascinating world of potato bugs, ants, and worms. Very cool!

Panda Cam viewers watched Mei Sheng grow to roly-poly cuteness in the birthing den in 2003.

Another readily accessible way for most kids to experience being an animal behaviorist is to watch our own exotic bears through Panda Cam and Polar Cam. While giant panda and polar bear cubs are undeniably cute, they are also fascinating to watch, and the care and patience the mother bear shows while tending to her offspring is fascinating. After each of Bai Yun’s cubs, our scientific and animal care staff watches the activity in the den in great detail and with unflagging fascination. I love that this very same view into the den will be available to anyone who visits our website.

We are all counting the days to the (hoped for) panda and polar bear births. As part of that, we are making sure that all of our camera systems and microphones are ready in the dens so that we can continue our studies of maternal care behavior in bears. This time around, I hope some young scientists out there will study the bears along with us.

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Children and Nature.


Polar Bears: Breeding Season!

Kalluk and the rest of us eagerly await a polar bear cub or two!

We are all on pins and needles to see if the San Diego Zoo’s polar bears, Kalluk and Chinook, will breed this year. They have always been early birds by breeding in March and even as early as February! But normal breeding time for polar bears is April through May and sometimes as late as June, something we won’t even contemplate! From the looks of how flirtatious Chinook has been and how attentive Kalluk seems, our patience should be rewarded.

We are still participating in reproductive studies looking at hormones excreted in the bears’ urine and feces, but for the most part we still rely on behavior observations. One of the very interesting behaviors we see is with Chinook. Typically, a week before actual breeding and continuing right up to actual, we see her have seizure-like spasms followed by weakness in her back legs. The spasms last only seconds and the weakness only a few minutes. If you don’t know what these are, they can be very scary to see!

But there is no need to worry: Chinook is not alone with these. Most of the other breeding female polar bears show the same behavior. I have asked polar bear biologists who have spent many years observing bears in the Arctic and have sent them video of the process, and they are mystified as to its purpose. Perhaps it plays some role in preparing a female’s legs to hold the male during breeding, since males are usually twice the size, and she may bear his weight for long moments. In the last week we have seen Chinook have these spasms, and over the last few days they have increased both in frequency and intensity. This should be a sign that we are almost there!

We all know what follows: waiting to see if Chinook becomes pregnant and gives birth. I have been getting lots of experience working with polar bear cubs over the last few years since Kalluk and Tatqiq joined us as cubs in 2001. I have just returned from a second visit with Siku, the polar bear cub born at the Scandinavian Wildlife Park in Denmark. My first visit was to share what we learned in preparing our polar bear youngsters for life in San Diego. Siku still was not yet walking then and was not quite 13 weeks old. On my recent trip, Siku was now 21 weeks and was walking, running, swimming, and being overall an adorable monster!

Since Siku’s mom did not produce milk, the decision was made to hand raise him, which meant having close contact with him (not a problem when his fastest speed was a quick crawl!). He is now rambunctious and, as polar bears need to do, he is jumping, grabbing, and mouthing everything and everyone in sight. Mom polar bears are well equipped to handle this; human caregivers, not so much!

This trip was to help the team in Denmark move ahead with management that increases Siku’s independence and encourages his natural instincts as a polar bear. He did extremely well with every challenge of independence. You can imagine how difficult it is, though, for the team who has been caring for him all these months to see that maybe he didn’t need them as much anymore, or at least not in the same ways. I must say how proud I was to assure them and show them the close ties we have with our three polar bears and how much that strengthens when you’re not worried about when the next play jump comes from a now 60-pound and often wet white ball of teeth and claws! All meant in fun, but still dangerous for fragile humans!

Siku has lots of toys to encourage his natural learning behavior and is getting plenty of opportunities to learn with his training sessions. At 21 weeks, he has already learned several important behaviors from his keepers such as “sit,” “stand,” “down,” “shift,” “come,” and how to sit on a scale.

In choosing his name, thought was given to the chance to represent wild polar bears and the people who share the Arctic. Siku is from the Inuit language for sea ice. Siku will remind everyone that we are losing our arctic ice due to warming trends in our climate.  Science has proven this warming is caused by the increase of carbon emissions in our atmosphere. Siku and our three polar bears, Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq, are ambassadors who remind all of us of their wild cousins and that we must make changes to help save their arctic home.

As you enjoy watching and hearing about these great ice bears, please keep in mind everything you can do to help. Then do it!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Back to 3.

UPDATE: Two days after this was written, Kalluk and Chinook began breeding. November 2 is the first possible day of birth if Chinook is pregnant! The waiting begins. . .


Polar Bears: No Easy Answers

Ah, Chinook!

November 16 has come and gone and still no news with Chinook. The estimated gestation for polar bears is 195 to 265 days; since Kalluk and Chinook bred in mid-February, we certainly expected to know by now if Chinook is or isn’t pregnant.  All we know for certain is that she has not had any cubs . . .yet.

Her hormone analysis shows similar profiles to other polar bears that have given birth in late November or December. It is also a profile that has not produced cubs. Every year we get a bit better information, but it is still not the perfect test. Chinook’s ultrasound exams also showed promise of her uterus developing as we’d not seen in past years. We also had two exams scheduled where Chinook let us know she did not want to join in. However, this week she enthusiastically participated. We easily could see her uterus but no cubs were to be seen.

So for now we have no easy answer to the question “Is she or isn’t she?” We will continue to care for her as she needs until the time that she shows us she is ready to be out with Kalluk and Tatqiq, and then we’ll have our terrific trio together again or until our beautiful girl has those precious white fur bundles, and we can all know our finger crossing and wishes worked!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bear Ultrasound.


Little Polar Bear: Lessons

Qannik demonstrates the paw to hand behavior. What a smart cub! Photo by Andrew Fore.

JoAnne was at the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky to help staff with their newest arrival, an orphaned polar bear cub named Qannik. Read her previous post, Little Polar Bear Orphan.

For polar bear cubs, life is all about learning to survive in the Arctic from the moment they are born until Momma kicks them out. Momma bear has all the right stuff for teaching: intelligence, nourishment, and communication. For Qannik, communication with her keepers would be the first lesson. Luckily, Qannik is very intelligent, and, dare I say, so are keepers! Training using positive reinforcement is how we communicate with our bears.

The sloping false bottom made for Qannik's pool.

We taught Qannik to slurp her formula out of a large syringe that is easy to use from outside the mesh. Qannik is a large girl now and will soon be reaching over 400 pounds (180 kilograms), so it’s important we teach her just as we would when she is an adult polar bear. This beginning relationship is so important: we look for nice, relaxed eye-to-eye moments. Next are a few simple behaviors like shifting rooms, sitting, or presenting a paw when asked to do so.

While the Louisville Zoo keepers were flying to Alaska to pick up Qannik, one of my tasks was to build a false bottom in her new pool to help her learn how to swim. In the Arctic, Momma bear offers her back for the young cubs to hold on to until they learn to swim well. With the help of Steve Goodwin, Louisville Zoo’s all-round-can-do-it-all guy (he makes incredible pottery, too!), we built, netted, tied, and lashed a false bottom into the pool. The design allowed for sloped access into the deep end, strength enough to hold a pouncing 60-pound (27 kilograms) bear, and be easy to take apart once Qannik could swim and get out of the pool on her own.

Qannik keeps everyone in suspense as she contemplates a swim.

The day after Qannik arrived, we watched her make her first plunge into the pool.  Miss Qannik knows how to hold her audience! She spent the majority of the day on the first steps holding on by her toes, stretching ever so far that we all knew she had to go in! She would turn and look at us as if to say “Gotcha!” Finally she rewarded our patience by a not-so-graceful dive into the pool after a white bucket toy.

After the first excitement we held our breaths: would she be able to get out of the pool? Well, of course—she’s a polar bear! At that moment we decided we could take the false bottom out of the pool, as it had done its job! The slope helped her with gradual ease into the pool, it was strong enough to hold her, and was easy to take apart. Did you know little polar bears are also helpful? Qannik hopped right back into the pool and began to dismantle the false bottom to the floor. Louisville Zoo keepers report she now throws all her toys into the pool and is officially a swimming maniac.

Qannik helps dismantle the pool's false bottom, as it's no longer needed.

When the time came to say goodbye to little Qannik, it was not without a lump in my throat. In just a week she had grabbed my heart for all she has been through in her short life. What a spirit—so tenacious, so tough, so intelligent, so irresistible, a connection to the wild. All polar bears are like Qannik. It’s hard to think that there will be more Qanniks to rescue and some that we won’t find.

My time with Qannik was also about the wonderful folks who all came together to rescue and care for this little bear and the great team that will be there when the next bear needs help. We can make the changes as individuals joining together into communities to collaborate on conservation to save our arctic ice and the beautiful spirited creatures that live there.

Be sure to share some time with the San Diego Zoo’s fabulous trio on Wednesday, July 13.  We hear we are in for a summertime snow fall!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


The State of Polar Bears

Polar bear Kalluk

May 16 to 22, 2011, is Bear Awareness Week, and we hope you’ll join us in celebrating these amazing animals. Snow will be provided for our brown bears this weekend! Today we focus on polar bears.

The polar bear’s scientific name, Ursus maritimus, means the “maritime bear.” Although polar bears are classified as marine mammals because they spend much of their lives on sea ice, they are still considered to be one of the largest land carnivores. While polar bears evolved fairly recently from their brown bear ancestors (about 200,000 years ago), they have evolved and adapted to thrive on the frozen sea ice of the Arctic Ocean and exploit a very specific resource niche. Their diet consists of mainly ringed or bearded seals that use the sea ice for denning, resting, or as breathing holes. This reliance on seals means that polar bears are the most carnivorous of all the bear species.

Polar bears inhabit the circumpolar regions of the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark. They exist in the most extreme environment for all bear species. Like the desert, environmental factors change very quickly in the Arctic and can be highly variable. When prey is plentiful, polar bears must hunt as much as possible to store adequate body fat to support them for the periods of time when prey is unavailable, and during the females’ winter denning period. Polar bears are so well adapted to their frigid habitat with thick fur, tough skin, and a thick layer of body fat, that they are likely to overheat during running or other vigorous activities. Since they are so well insulated and only have a few places to dissipate heat (paws, mouth, and nose), swimming is one of the best ways for a polar bear to cool off. That’s why on hot days you can often see the San Diego Zoo’s three polar bears in the pool having fun!

Polar bears are a top predator in the Arctic food web. Their place at the top influences populations that are lower in the web, including their main prey species, the ringed seal. Furthermore, their feeding habits influence several scavenger species, such as the Arctic fox and ivory gull, that are dependent on the seal scraps that may get left behind after a kill. The loss of a top predator in an ecosystem typically has a negative affect resulting in trophic cascades and disease prevalence, exemplified by the removal of wolves from Yellowstone National Park.

Polar bears are completely dependent on their sea-ice environment for survival, and as climate change reduces the amount of yearly sea ice formation, their future is uncertain. Annual sea ice is breaking up earlier and forming later, which means shorter hunting seasons, less body fat, and an increase in cub mortality. More open water between ice flows and an increase in females denning up on the mainland over winter has been observed. Many bears now spend more time on the mainland and are forced to seek out different food sources. However, the best science suggests that opportunistic feeding on birds, lichen, even caribou, is not enough to support the polar bear: it needs the ice and the seals!

The sea ice may help polar bears find mates, too. During the spring before the ice breaks up, these bears with vast and wide home ranges manage to mysteriously find each other out on the ice. Polar bears have home ranges (about 25,000 square miles or 65,000 square kilometers) that vary from year to year. They don’t have rigid territories like other bear species but instead have distinct and predictable home ranges, which they scent mark to advertise their presence. For instance, if you stopped by the giant panda exhibit a month ago, you would have seen Bai Yun or Gao Gao scent marking the ground, rocks, branches, or even doing handstands to mark trees. However, in the polar bear’s habitat at breeding time there are only vast stretches of sea ice, so that is where they leave their scent as they walk. Female polar bears only breed once every three years, yet researchers have seen males sniff tracks in the snow and then follow them for miles and miles to an available female. How do they do that and not waste a lot of time and energy to find the right bear?

Here at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, we have been studying how polar bears accomplish this. As it turns out, they passively track scent on the snow with every step, and during breeding season they can tell if a footprint is from a male or female and if the female is in estrus or not. Who knew toe jams communicate so much about a polar bear? So what will happen if the sea ice melts and the scent trails are lost or broken? Further fragmentation among subpopulations is a concern, and more bears may fail to reproduce because they simply cannot find a mate.

However, while there are reasons for hope,  we need to continue to make conservation strides in order to improve the situation for the polar bear! In 2008, the polar bear was officially listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which should afford them greater protections. However, according to Polar Bears International Scientist Dr. Steven Amstrup, the recent status report that indicated that 3 of the 19 subpopulations of polar bear were stable “compares negatively” with the assessment done in 2005 (where 5 subpopulations were stable) and is in even more striking contrast to 2001 (when only 1 subpopulation was in decline).

This Bear Awareness Week I encourage you to do something proactive on behalf of bears and the issues that affect them. Reducing your carbon footprint is vital to helping polar bears. It sounds silly for the most carnivorous bear, but I am going vegetarian at lunchtime this week to reduce my carbon footprint. There are many simple ways to help polar bears: try putting your on the laundry line, recycling is always important, and walking/biking or even getting a tune-up on your car can help. For more information on ways to help or to get more involved with issues that affect polar bears, visit Polar Bears International.

Christine Slocomb is a research technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

Read more about San Diego Zoo Global’s conservation work with bears…
To help bears and other animals, join our Global Action Team!

Watch the Zoo’s polar bears daily on Polar Cam.


Save the Bear

A sun bear displays her impressive tongue.

May 16 to 22, 2011, is Bear Awareness Week, and we hope you’ll join us in celebrating these amazing animals. While you learn more about bears, please take the time to reflect upon the challenges all bears face in wild and learn all that you can about what you can do to make a difference to help conserve bears. At the San Diego Zoo, we are passionate about bear conservation, and we’re excited to share with you our current research efforts, as well as an overview of the challenges that free-ranging populations of bears face around the world.

The bear family (Ursidae) currently consists of eight species, seven of which are conservation-dependent species (the sole exception:  the American black bear). Each conservation-dependent species inhabits a very different habitat, has generally evolved to exploit a particular resource niche (which may change seasonally), and has evolved a number of striking adaptations that have enabled them to take advantage of the unique foods they eat and the habitats in which they live.

While each bear species has evolved, over thousands of years, to cope with the various natural challenges to survival found in their environment, they all face extreme challenges to their persistence in the wild due to the impacts of human populations and the rapid pace of environmental change due to human activities. While humans impact the environment in a variety of ways, ultimately it is one single factor that poses, by far, the greatest threat to the persistence of all wild bear populations: HABITAT LOSS. From great polar bears roaming the vast Arctic sea ice to diminutive sun bears dwelling in the tropical rain forests of Southeast Asia, suitable habitat is being lost or fragmented at an alarming pace. Climate change, resource extraction, and human population growth have all contributed to habitat losses. But, while these challenges may seem daunting, the reality is that if we can change our habits, reduce our carbon footprint, and make conscientious changes in how we buy and use products, we can reverse these trends, and we can save the world’s bears.

Historically, hunting was the greatest threat to all bear species. Unregulated hunting had dramatic impacts on population numbers for bears worldwide, especially in the first half of the 20th century, when a lack of regulation was coupled with enhanced access to bears (through motorized vehicles) and more efficient weapons. In the 1970s, the impact of hunting on some species, such as the polar bear, impelled wildlife biologists and managers to develop science-based harvest quotas that, over the years, served to stabilize polar bear populations. However, the unregulated “take” of wild bears continues in some parts of the world, and bear parts and the pet trade have continued to take their toll on a number of Asian bear species (except the giant panda).

Just as the impact of hunting on most bear populations was minimized through the efforts of people, so, too, can the impacts of habitat loss and climate change be reduced. We can all make a difference, and the first step is to get passionate about bears and bear conservation. A great place to start? The San Diego Zoo!

Come visit Kalluk, Chinook, and Tatqiq (polar bears); Montana, Scout, and Blackie (brown bears); Marcella and Francis (sun bears); Bai Yun, Gao Gao, and Yun Zi (giant pandas); Houdini and Tommy (Andean bears); and Ken and Bhutan (sloth bears). They are all great bear ambassadors. After visiting the wide array of bears at the San Diego Zoo, I have no doubt you’ll be inspired to turn off your TV, ride your bike (or walk) instead of driving, and carefully read product labels!

Find out more about the bear research the San Diego Zoo is actively engaged in…

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Love is in the Air.


Zoo Art for Pediatric Patients

An Arctic fox meets some special children.

The Kaiser Art Program is a collaboration between the San Diego Zoo’s Education Department, the San Diego Optimist Club, and Kaiser-Permanente’s hospital pediatric ward. Each month, outpatients, nurses, donors, and their families visit the Zoo to meet animals, go behind the scenes at the Zoo, and receive art lessons from Joe Nyiri, the Zoo’s longtime art instructor.

We had a great time this month with our Kaiser Art Program group.  January celebrated a winter wonderland theme with a visit to the Arctic animals at the Zoo’s Polar Bear Plunge.  I met our group at the front of the Zoo on a cold San Diego morning.  The clouds were gray and low, with no sun to be seen.  It wasn’t supposed to rain, but it sure felt like a dark winter day.  I saw my breath as I exhaled (yes—it was THAT cold!).  Despite the frosty morning, my friends from Kaiser met me with high spirits, excited for the day we had in store.

I was happy to see our guests decked out in hats and jackets. Today we’d be feeling the wind chill aboard our open-air, double-decked bus ride to Polar Bear Plunge. I greeted the familiar faces and received wishes of a Happy New Year. Cold or not, we were going to have a blast!

We popped into the Zoo and hopped aboard the bus. The kids, happily munching on granola bars and sipping juice boxes, bravely settled in on the top deck. I tried to stump the group with an Arctic quiz. This crowd, wide-eyed and ready to roll, knocked my socks off with their polar bear knowledge. How far can a polar bear smell a seal on the ice? What color is a polar bear’s fur? These kids knew it all! (Visit our Animal Bytes page for help with the answers.)

A potato?!

On our bus tour we explored the adaptations animals have in the wintertime before being dropped off at Polar Bear Plunge, where we spied on Isiq and Kaniq, the Arctic foxes.  Joe Nyiri, our art teacher extraordinaire, gave a lesson in drawing polar bears.  He said, “It’s like drawing a potato.” Indeed, the bears’ bodies are plump and round and fit for the Arctic wilderness.

After a peek at Boris the baby reindeer, we made our way to the Zoo’s Rondavel meeting room, where we mingled and snacked, drinking hot cocoa to warm up. Joe gave his instruction on taking the pencil drawings the kids sketched and adding pastel and watercolor to create multi-medium masterpieces. To top it all off, we had a visit from Dassie, a rock hyrax that shuffled about the room, curious and energetic.

What an awesome day!

Kimberly Carroll is an educator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Winter Camp 2010.

Watch the polar bears daily on Polar Cam.


Polar Bears: The Latest

Kalluk grabs a carrot snack.

It’s hard to believe summer is a distant memory, and fall is quickly passing. Can we already be into the middle of November? Six months ago we were all so sure our Chinook would be caring for cubs. We’ve not yet given up, but the wait and uncertainty is almost un”bear”able. We will just have to wait a bit longer to know if we will be welcoming any cubs to our family.

Here is what we do know: as of the last analysis of hormones, October 12, Chinook had not yet had any embryos implant, but her levels were still close to what we would expect of a potentially pregnant polar bear. So if she is pregnant, we would now not expect to see any cubs until late November or early December. We must still keep in mind that these tests are not a perfected science, and we still have many things to learn.

Chinook’s weight has now stabilized, and she is no longer gaining weight; still, she is very picky about what she will and won’t eat. Again, something seen in polar bears that have given birth. Chinook’s behavior seems to be moving away from what we would expect; instead of slowing down, she is becoming more active. This is not entirely a sign of no pregnancy; some females show heightened activity just before they den up. These are typically females that give birth shortly after denning.

Do we dare hope that this is Chinook’s plan? As it has always been here at the San Diego Zoo, Chinook’s needs will dictate everything we do for her. Is she just learning that every fall, if she slows a bit, we begin catering to her every need and give her more  “me” time and spa days? And of course she gets those special days of peanut butter soup and belly rubs for ultrasound procedures. She is a very smart girl! Unfortunately, we have yet to see any cubs with the ultrasound. Not to be discouraged: our veterinarians remind us they did ultrasound for three years before they saw a cub with our giant pandas!

Kalluk and Tatqiq are having a great time together. They certainly are enjoying rambunctious water play and daily dirt pile rolls! It would appear Chinook is now not the only dirt bear expert. In the event Chinook does not den up, we would look to putting our threesome together as soon as possible. I shudder to think what the pool will look like with three huge dirt balls jumping off the point!

Fall is also the time when Chinook’s cousins in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, begin to gather at the shore and wait for the ice to form. I am on my way north for my 10th year in this one-of-a-kind polar bear world. Selfishly, I’m hoping that if Chinook is to give birth, she will wait for me to come home in December. I am also concerned with what I might see with the wild polar bears. This past year saw the shortest recorded ice formation for the Hudson Bay population of polar bears. Not only did it freeze up four weeks late, it also melted five weeks early. The bears had barely six months to hunt. The forecast is not looking any better, and warmer-than-normal temperatures are expected throughout Canada’s Hudson Bay. Although a few degrees may not seem like much, the difference between water and ice is the difference between 33 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 and -0.5 degrees Celsius). A small amount can, in the end, make a huge difference.

What other small thing can you do to reduce your carbon footprint and encourage others to do the same? In the end, it could make a huge difference.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bear Hopes.

Watch the Zoo’s polar bears daily on Polar Cam.


Teen Arctic Ambassadors: Day 5

The teens were within inches of this female bear!

Teens from the U.S., Canada, and Australia attended Polar Bears International’s Teen Leadership Camp. Below is a post written by the whole group. Read a previous post from the San Diego Zoo’s 2010 Teen Arctic Ambassador, Teen Arctic Ambassador: Day 4.

Today the connection was truly felt. The force of climate change was driven home by Robert Buchannan and all of the facilitators and was helped by our resident two polar bears outside the window of our Tundra Buggy. Last night ended with incredible inspiration by a fellow ambassador, Alannah Watkins, and the facilitators, Cynthia and Andrew. We were dazzled by the map of the retreating sea ice in the Arctic, which drove home the importance of taking action.

We started the day off with a lovely song from BJ and a wonderful breakfast of blueberry pancakes and maple syrup. Next, we set off on the tundra and watched a presentation from the Green Team regarding climate change. We burst into fits of laughter as the Orange Team performed their skit, which featured the evil, ignorant businessman.

In another special experience, we were given the chance to physically go down onto the tundra and learn about some of the plant life that the polar bear lives with, viewing it from their eye level. After this, we saw a polar bear coming toward us from across the tundra. We were fortunate enough to have the polar bear stand up, lean against the buggy, and come almost face to face with us. Polar bears have such sensitive hearing that they are more likely to hear a whisper than a loud bang. Kindra Maples, one of our inspirational facilitators, then told us to whisper to the polar bear and have that special moment with this animal. For us, seeing and hearing the polar bear and being close enough for us to feel its breath really sent the message home of why we are here.

After this amazing experience, we had to be pulled away from the polar bears to receive the equally inspiring experience of talking to students from a Canadian class of fourth grade students class and one of the ambassadors, Brenna Woods’, high school. It was very difficult to hold our concentration during these videoconferences with the arrival of two polar bears that enthralled us with their quirky behavior and the first snow fall on the tundra. The snow was a unique experience for the Australian team. Then another hour was spent viewing our resident polar bears spar, roll around, and dazzle us with their character.

The rest of the afternoon was spent creating our forward action plan, and through that we created the latest organization on the environmental front run by 2010 Teen Arctic Ambassadors, Green Across the Seas, which will focus on reducing carbon emissions in local and global organizations. Following this, we had a videoconference with Robert Buchanon, CEO of Polar Bears International, who highlighted the power of youth and challenged us even further to make our organization a powerful force in our communities. Robert believed we were truly going to make a difference as the Northern Lights shined on us during our stay in Churchill. The day was finished with John Gunter, general manager of Frontier North Adventures, providing us with a unique insight into ecotourism. He became our first official green pledge in the Green Across the Seas crusade!

All of these experiences have touched us in many ways and ensured our participation once we return home. From all the Arctic Ambassadors, thank you for providing the youth of tomorrow with inspiration to last a lifetime.
The Teen Arctic Ambassadors of 2010.