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The Bears in our Care

  • Eddy

  • Taiga

  • Inukshuk

  • Henry

  • Ganuk

Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus translates to the sea bear) spend much of their life on sea ice, and are therefore generally considered marine mammals, and are the largest predators on land. This iconic species is well adapted to cold Arctic temperatures. Polar bears have small soft bumps, known as papillae, on the bottom of their feet that stop them from slipping on ice, a thin membrane shields their eyes while swimming, and they are so well insulated that even heat-sensing cameras have difficulty locating them.

A male polar bear is the largest member of the bear family and can stand more than nine feet tall on its hind legs and weighs up to 1,200 pounds. Polar bears primarily eat the blubber of ringed and bearded seals and hunt using their keen sense of smell to track down seal birth lairs. With incredible patience, polar bears will wait hours for a seal to surface from a breathing hole.

The polar bear breeding season occurs in spring. Once a mate is selected, females experience delayed implantation, which means the embryo “floats” before attaching to the uterus wall. The female will then hunt and put on weight for a period of up to nine months before she dens, and gestation occurs. Females generally gain between 400 and 500 pounds during their pregnancy. After approximately three months, cubs, weighing between 450 and 700 grams, are born. Pregnant females will build a den for their cubs with a series of chambers. She will stay in the den with her cubs. A female gives birth every three years or so, usually to twins that stay with their mother for about two years. Only pregnant females will den while other polar bears are active all year.

Polar bears have special significance in Canada because they are of cultural, spiritual, and economic significance to the Inuit and many northern communities.

There are 19 subpopulations of polar bears in the world, of which 13 can be found in Canada. It has been extremely challenging to estimate the total number of bears globally, but the best midpoint estimate by experts is 25,000. Polar bears in Canada account for approximately two thirds of the global population.

Polar bears were listed as a Species of Special Concern in November 2011 under the Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA). The IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species lists polar bears as Vulnerable.

KINGDOM: Animalia
PHYLUM: Chordata
CLASS: Mammalia
ORDER: Carnivora
FAMILY: Ursidae
GENUS: Ursus
SPECIES: Ursus maritimus

Global Polar Bear Range

Latest global population map issued by Environment and Climate Change Canada (2018). Click image for additional maps.

Population numbers are also available in both tabular and mapped formats (2017) from another source, the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group.

We believe polar bears should be in the wild. However, if their life depends on being in human care, we should make it the best it can possibly be, and learn everything we can so we can help sustain their future existence. Not only is research in a polar bear’s natural habitat extremely expensive, many research projects are only possible in a controlled environment. Our research projects, along with our commitment to raising their standard of care, drives the passion behind our continued evolution.

Seaweed: Energy and fat-dense food

Polar bears are carnivores. Their diets are dominant with energy and fat-dense food including seals and whales (Thiemann et al., 2008; Galicia et al., 2015). However, polar bears have been observed consuming low-calorie marine macroalgae during fasting period on land. The reason is unknown. The goal of the current study is to determine whether seaweeds have the bioactive properties to improve intestinal health, hormone regulation or inflammatory level of the polar bear, and understand the rationale behind seaweed-consuming behavior by polar bears in the wild.
Collins, S. (Dalhousie University).

Aerial Multispectral Imaging

Imagery was collected using a hexacopter (drone) designed for NOAA’s marine mammal research in Alaska and Antarctica. The platform carried two payloads which collect thermal, color, and UV imagery. Imagery was collected opportunistically with bears in different states, whether resting or coming out of the water, to measure how long it takes for the bear to radiate a detectable heat signature. Multispectral imagery of bears on ice, in open snow fields, and near rocks was collected for use in the development of an automated bear detection model.
Moreland, E. and Boveng, P. (Polar Ecosystems Program, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA)

Seal Trials

In the wild, it would be impossible to be certain what a polar bear eats over a period of time. Inukshuk and Ganuk were given a singular diet of seal for several months. Tissue and blood samples were taken after a determined amount of time to identify indicators (signature) of seal being consumed. Since researchers are now able to identify the seal signature in polar bears tissue, this information can be used the in field to track seal distribution and population numbers through wild polar bear samples.
Thieman, G. (York University), Wensvoort, J. (Toronto Zoo).

Whisker Prints

Whisker prints are as unique as fingerprints. The Whisker Print project analyzes polar bears’ whisker print patterns in a non-invasive manner. The prints are used to identify individual bears, and to identify if environmental stressors cause asymmetric patterns in the whisker patterns in polar bears. Both Henry and Ganuk’s whisker patterns are sent in and analyzed monthly.
Anderson, C.J.R., Roth, J.D., Waterman, J.M. Department of Biology, University of Central Florida.

Urine Sampling

Weekly urine samples were sent to Memphis zoo to be analyzed for testosterone levels. Results showed that polar bears with the lowest testosterone levels were found in Canada. However, Inukshuk showed the highest levels of testosterone of any bears tested in North America.
Knott, K. Memphis Zoo.

Fæcal Sampling

This ongoing study analyzes fæcal samples from Henry to study sexual maturation from a young age. Samples are sent biannually to Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.
Curry, E. (Reproductive Physiologist), Terri Roth, T. (Vice President). CREW.

Behavioural Logs

Daily Behavioural Logs are records of the bears’ behaviours at regular intervals all day every day at the Habitat. This information is used to create and manage behavioural plans. We are able to enhance their lives by understanding how the bears behave in reaction to food, toys, weather and enclosures.
Animal Care Staff

Training

Daily training sessions are performed with our bears to reinforce communication and trust between the bears and our animal care staff. Physical checks are performed on our bears to inspect for cuts or lacerations, check teeth for any dental problems and to test mobility through requests. We are currently working with our bears to have them voluntarily participate in procedures that would normally be performed on sedated bears, such as blood draws, swabs, and injections. When they stay conscious for these procedures and are willing participants, it reduces their stress levels and eliminates the risks associated with anesthesia.
Animal Care Staff

Scientists agree that the biggest threat to polar bears is climate change. In Cochrane, Ontario, we are just hours away from the James Bay Coast, where Ontario’s sub-population of polar bears are experiencing much longer ice-free periods than ever before. As we may be called upon to help move or rescue a polar bear, educating people on and promoting environmental stewardship isn’t just a public relations campaign to us – it’s a call to action. But education and promotion isn’t all we do.

Climate Change Education Programme

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to polar bears’ collective survival, and it is already drastically affecting the far north and the humans who live there, too. We have connected with students who live in communities in polar bears’ wild ranges to facilitate discussion and explore different methods for monitoring their environment. This program, which uses GIS and GPS mapping, is in partnership with CreeGeo Muhskegowuk Information Services.

To help polar bears we must understand exactly what climate change is. This requires analysis of daily, monthly and yearly patterns caused by the weather. This program will help facilitate discussion and teach students different methods of monitoring their environment.

Students will be educated through classes on environmental subjects such as climate change. This lesson plan enables children to virtually interact, and be involved with the polar bears at our habitat from the classroom. Students will also actively participate in environmental monitoring and are encouraged to discuss other important factors to monitor with community members and elders.

Human Bear Interaction Strategy

Recently a polar bear ventured into Moose Factory, an area in the very southern part of James Bay that hasn’t seen polar bears in many years. Together with partners the Ministry of Natural Resources, Nishnawbi Aski Police, Moose Cree, MoCreebec and the OPP, the Habitat is driving a polar bear/human interaction strategy to help keep communities safe, while improving options for polar bears.

Rescue and Relocation

Threats to polar bears through climate change or human interactions mean that a relocation of a problem bear or a rescue of an orphaned bear may be needed in the future. While the likelihood of this happening is rare, the Polar Bear Habitat has the tools and an action plan in place to organize this mission. This is possible through the generous gift of a corporate donor and the care of our community.

Student Ambassador Programme

The Australian – Canadian Polar Bear Ambassador Programme links two schools across hemispheres, climates and time zones to create a shared awareness of Polar bear conservation and climate change. Henry the Polar bear’s relocation from Sea World, Australia to the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat, Canada was the catalyst for this connection. He has been symbolically adopted as a classroom ambassador by Coomera Rivers Primary School and a Cochrane, Ontario, Canada school.

Through Henry, these schools are learning about the differences in geography, environments, effects of climate change, culture, and conservation issues between the “great white north” and the “land down under.”

Animal Care Education Programme

The Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat offers students, teachers and groups the chance to better understand the life of a polar bear animal care worker and the integral role polar bears in human care play in understanding the polar bear species.

The Habitat works with colleges to train students wanting to work with animals. This program allows students to experience a day-in-the-life of animal care staff. Students will be asked to keep behavioural logs, prepare daily diets along with supplements, create enrichments, clean enclosures and work in an exciting environment.