Pictured above: Baffin, with a tag prototype attached to his back, in the Journey to Churchill habitat at Assiniboine Park Zoo.

The Conservation and Research team at Assiniboine Park Zoo is contributing to an exciting new research project in collaboration with Polar Bears International. The bears in our care are helping researchers test less invasive techniques for tracking polar bears in the wild.

Polar Bears International’s "Burr on Fur" project aims to develop a minimally invasive way of tracking polar bears through small devices that attach to the bear’s fur. Scientists track polar bears to better understand how and where bears use their sea ice habitat and how that use may be changing in a warming climate. This allows researchers to more effectively identify the needs of polar bears and understand how continued warming will impact this Arctic species.

conservation staff attach tag to polar bear
Conservation staff attach a tag prototype to a polar bear under anesthesia

Traditionally, polar bear movements have been tracked via radio and satellite collars. However, these tracking devices are not effective on all polar bears. Adult males can’t wear collars because their necks are as big as their heads, causing the collars to slip off. Subadult bears can’t be collared because young bears grow too fast.

The new tracking devices being tested at the Zoo are designed in partnership with Polar Bears International and 3M with the intent of being smaller, lighter, and more efficient and could work on all polar bears while withstanding Arctic conditions.

prototype tag attached to Baffin
Prototype tag attached to a polar bear's fur

C-Jae attaching tag
Research Conservation Specialist C-Jae Breiter attaches a tag prototype

Deploying the tags on zoo bears helps researchers closely monitor how the prototypes perform under various conditions, gaining critical information that they would be unable to obtain from wild bears roaming in the Arctic. Here at the Zoo, we can monitor what causes a tag to fall off. Was the bear rolling in the grass or snow? Sparring with another bear? Swimming in a pool? Where better to test a tag than in a habitat with eight playful polar bears!

This October, two bears here at the Zoo, Baffin and Aurora, underwent dental procedures. While under anesthesia, members of our Conservation and Research team took the opportunity to attach tag prototypes to their fur. Baffin and Aurora lost their tags within days of returning to their habitat at Journey to Churchill. A quick failure, while not ideal, gives the team at Polar Bears International immediate feedback that can be used to improve options for the next prototype.

Baffin with tag
Baffin, with a tag prototype attached to his back, returns to the Journey to Churchill polar bear habitat.

Conservation and research programs at Assiniboine Park Zoo are aimed to support the betterment of animals in our care and to assist conservation efforts in the wild. This is just one example of how polar bears in our care can contribute to research that can help their wild counterparts.

Seven zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are participating in the Burr on Fur project. In addition to Assiniboine Park Zoo, program participants include Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Kansas City Zoo, Columbus Zoo, San Diego Zoo, Como Zoo, and Oregon Zoo.