How Elvis the Beagle is Helping to Save Polar Bears

April 2, 2014

By Linda Cole

I love reading stories highlighting the exceptional abilities of dogs, especially when it comes to using their extraordinary sense of smell in wildlife conservation. When a dog’s nose is used to aid endangered or threatened apex predators, that helps preserve the natural balance in an ecosystem. Researchers have discovered that the super nose of a two year old Beagle named Elvis can help scientists better understand the polar bear reproductive cycle.

The idea of training a dog to detect if a polar bear is pregnant began with one of the scientists at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), after he read about studies using dogs to sniff out cancer. No one knew if using a canine to detect polar bear pregnancies was possible, but it was worth trying because of the difficulty zoo keepers had confirming it on their own.

Polar bears are listed on the Endangered Species list as threatened because of loss of habitat and climate change. If a bear is suspected of being pregnant, zoo officials begin to prepare for the birthing process whether she’s pregnant or not. They want to do everything they can towards the survival and care of cubs born at their facilities. Males need to be separated from the female, dens need to be prepared with proper bedding, video cameras are set up to monitor what’s going on, and staff and volunteers are needed around the clock. Few cubs are born to polar bears living in zoos, and many cubs born in the wild don’t survive.

Elvis was trained by a Kansas dog trainer, Matt Skogen, who has trained other dogs to find everything from explosives, mold, peanut allergens and bed bugs. The Beagle underwent extensive training for a year smelling scat samples of polar bears known to be pregnant, as well as females that weren’t pregnant, juveniles and males. What he detects isn’t exactly known by scientists, but somehow Elvis can tell the difference between samples of pregnant and non-pregnant females.

Polar bears have one of the lowest reproduction rates among mammals, with a female having just five litters or so in her lifetime. She typically gives birth to one or two cubs, once every two or three years.

The gestation period is 8 months, but that includes a process called delayed implantation which is a survival strategy that keeps eggs from attaching to the uterine wall until she’s had time to gain the 440 plus pounds needed to make sure the embryos will survive and she can provide enough food for her cubs once they are born. It only takes about 4 months for the cubs to develop in the womb.

After mating, the female retreats to a maternity den until the cubs are big enough to venture out. While in the den, the female doesn’t eat or drink. Her main job is to feed and protect her cubs. If food is scarce, she won’t mate and remains active during the winter months. Polar bears don’t hibernate.

Because the reproductive cycle of polar bears is tricky, zoo officials say false pregnancies are common, and there were only three cubs born in zoos last year. Traditional ways like ultrasound exams can’t diagnose a pregnancy in polar bears with any accuracy, so CREW members decided to break with tradition to come up with a more effective method.

That’s where Elvis the Beagle comes in. Zoos try to maintain conditions their bears would find in the wild. Knowing whether or not a female is pregnant helps zoos manage how and where a female will spend her winter. Scientists say wild populations of polar bears are at risk of extinction as soon as the end of this century due to global warming. So each successful birth in zoos can help insure the survival of these beautiful and endangered bears. There are fewer than 50 captive polar bears living in zoos across the country.

Elvis is the first sniffer dog that’s been utilized in biomedical research in relation to wildlife. His success rate is an impressive 97%, which is as accurate as an over the counter human pregnancy test. Having Elvis sniff droppings of female polar bears that are known to have mated is a non-invasive and safer way to determine an actual pregnancy so zoos can do the preparations needed for a mama bear about to give birth. In late October of last year, Elvis was given 34 samples from 17 polar bears in 14 zoos around the country. According to Elvis’s nose, the 2014 cubbing season looks to be as small as it was last year.

Elvis the Beagle could be the key to helping scientists unravel polar bear reproduction in captivity and the wild to help preserve an endangered species before it’s too late.

Top photo by longhorndave
Bottom photo by carrerra911e

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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