What do a two-year-old Beagle named Elvis and pregnant Polar Bears have in common? Scientists at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) have brought them together to detect pregnancy in Polar Bears living in zoos.
Traditional pregnancy detection methods like hormone monitoring and ultrasounds don’t work well in Polar Bears. With climate change threatening wild Polar Bear populations, CREW’s staff is getting creative to help save this important species, and they’ve found a possible helper in Elvis the Beagle.
Working with professional dog trainer Matt Skogen, CREW is trying to determine if the sensitive noses of canines like Elvis can distinguish a pregnant Polar Bear from a non-pregnant Bear simply by smelling fecal samples.
“This is the first time sniffer dogs have been used in biomedical research as it relates to any wildlife species, making this project truly one-of-a-kind,” said CREW’s Dr. Erin Curry. Currently, Elvis is demonstrating 97% accuracy in positive identification of samples from pregnant females – which is not only incredible but nearly as accurate as over-the-counter human pregnancy tests.
Since January, Matt has used more than 200 training samples collected from Polar Bears of known pregnancy status to help Elvis refine his detection technique.
Last month, Elvis’s skills were put to the test. He tested samples from 17 female Polar Bears whose pregnancy status is unknown. The zoos are eager to know if these females are pregnant so they can monitor these Polar Bears and make preparations. Pregnant Bears could be isolated with minimal disruption while being closely monitored by camera 24/7 in anticipation of a birth, whereas non-pregnant females would remain swimming and socializing all winter with their exhibitmates.
Read more about Elvis and Polar Bears below the fold.
Polar Bears depend on sea ice for hunting, denning, and finding mates. Climate change is causing a decrease in the amount of sea ice, which in turn has shortened the hunting season, so Polar Bears have less time to hunt and put on enough fat to survive the summer months. Polar Bears have been listed as a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act. The number of Polar Bears in the wild is expected to decline primarily due to starvation and decreased reproduction. At the 2009 meeting of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, scientists reported that of the 19 subpopulations of Polar Bears, eight are declining, three are stable, seven have no data available, and only one is increasing.