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Denver Zoo hopes that 11-year-old polar bear, Cranbeary may be expecting. But to be sure, staff sent a sample of her poop to an expert at predicting polar bear pregnancies – a beagle working with the Cincinnati Zoo.
Worldwide, traditional methods of pregnancy detection, such as progesterone monitoring and ultrasound examination, are not effective at diagnosing pregnancy in polar bears. So scientists at Cincinnati Zoo's Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) have gotten creative. In collaboration with professional dog trainer, Matt Skogen, owner of Iron Heart High Performance Working Dogs and a beagle named Elvis, CREW is trying to determine if the sensitive noses of canines can distinguish a pregnant polar bear from a non-pregnant bear simply by smelling fecal samples.
"We can't wait to hear Elvis's conclusions. Cranbeary has not had any cubs before and to be able to know with accuracy if she has conceived is very valuable to us as it helps us prepare. Cincinnati Zoo will be sharing Elvis's predictions with us in a couple of weeks," says Denver Zoo Vice President for Animal Care Brian Aucone.
Video of Elvis training can be seen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xkwwGxX1mw
Pregnant bears that enter dens in the wild are generally undisturbed and do not eat, drink, or defecate for months. In contrast, non-pregnant bears do not spend the winter in dens. Zoos do their best to mimic wild conditions most appropriate for their bears so an accurate pregnancy test would be very helpful in guiding the management strategy throughout the winter season. Pregnant bears could be properly isolated with minimal disruption while being closely monitored by camera in anticipation of a birth, whereas non-pregnant females would be allowed to enjoy the cool winter season swimming and socializing out on exhibit with male and/or female counterparts.
Beginning in January 2013, Skogen began training Elvis for approximately one hour a day. During that initial training and testing period, Elvis was already working at a high accuracy level, but his real exam is occurring right now.
On October 28, Elvis was presented with 34 samples, two samples from each of the 17 polar bears that mated this past spring. The 17 female polar bears, including Denver Zoo's Cranbeary are potentially pregnant. Over the next two weeks, Elvis will be testing and double-testing samples to come up with predictions for this cubbing season.
"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 Dr. Erin Curry, a Post-Doctoral Fellow studying polar bear reproduction at CREW. Currently, Elvis is demonstrating approximately 97 percent accuracy in positive identification of samples from pregnant females – which is not only incredible but nearly as accurate as human pregnancy tests that are available over-the-counter.
"Figuring out which component of the samples Elvis recognizes in the pregnant bears may allow us to work backwards and finally identify the polar bear pregnancy factor, once and for all," said Dr. Curry.
"Whether Cranbeary is pregnant or not, we have a lot to celebrate. Polar bear week is Nov. 4-10 and Cranbeary will turn 12 on Nov. 21. Everyone who loves these creatures should learn how they can take part in polar bear week at http://www.tinyurl.com/polarbearweek," added Aucone.
Polar Bears International (PBI) organizes polar bear week annually. Denver Zoo is an Arctic Ambassador Center with PBI, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the worldwide conservation of the polar bear and their habitat through research, stewardship and education. 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 from loss of sea ice due to climate change.