AboutZoos, Since 2008


Spe­cial trained bea­gle can sniff out polar bear pregnancy

pub­lished 05 Novem­ber 2013 | mod­i­fied 03 Novem­ber 2014

What do a two-​year-​old Bea­gle, named “Elvis,” and sci­en­tists at the Cincin­nati Zoo’s Cen­ter for Con­ser­va­tion & Research of Endan­gered Wildlife (CREW) have in com­mon? Well, the two are work­ing together to deter­mine preg­nancy in polar bears found in zoos through­out North America.

Elvis sniffer beagleWorld­wide, tra­di­tional meth­ods of preg­nancy detec­tion, such as prog­es­terone mon­i­tor­ing and ultra­sound exam­i­na­tion, are not effec­tive at diag­nos­ing preg­nancy in polar bears, so sci­en­tists at 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.

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
Dr. Erin Curry, Post-​Doctoral Fel­low study­ing polar bear repro­duc­tion at CREW »

Cur­rently, Elvis is demon­strat­ing approx­i­mately 97% 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.

“Col­lab­o­ra­tion is cru­cial in all con­ser­va­tion efforts, but espe­cially when it comes to such ‘out of the box’ ven­tures as this,” said Dr. Curry. “Matt and his team at Iron Heart have embraced this project com­pletely, spend­ing count­less hours train­ing Elvis for this excep­tion­ally unique pur­pose, and their con­tri­bu­tion to CREW’s research has been invalu­able.” For CREW’s study, over 200 train­ing sam­ples from polar bears of known preg­nancy sta­tus were cho­sen ret­ro­spec­tively and sent to Iron Heart, where Elvis is learn­ing to iden­tify the sam­ples that came from preg­nant females.

Begin­ning in Jan­u­ary 2013, Matt 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.

“When I was con­tacted by Dr. Curry at the Cincin­nati Zoo I was hon­oured to have the oppor­tu­nity to work on such a unique project,” said Matt Sko­gen, Pro­fes­sional Work­ing Dog Trainer, at Iron Heart High Per­for­mance Work­ing Dogs. “I felt the project was a noble cause and jumped at the oppor­tu­nity to pro­vide the research and work toward a pos­i­tive conclusion.”

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 the Cincin­nati Zoo’s “Berit,” liv­ing in 14 zoos through­out the U.S. and Canada 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. Once Elvis’ work is com­plete, his results will be shared with Dr. Curry and she will begin the process of reach­ing out to insti­tu­tions, inform­ing them on whether or not Elvis indi­cated that their polar bear(s) is preg­nant. Those insti­tu­tions should have a few weeks to fur­ther pre­pare for impend­ing births since the major­ity of births occur from 13 Novem­ber to 15 December.

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 247 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.

Fig­ur­ing out which com­po­nent of the sam­ples Elvis recog­nises in the preg­nant bears may allow us to work back­wards and finally iden­tify the polar bear preg­nancy fac­tor, once and for all. In addi­tion, we are con­sid­er­ing how snif­fer dogs can con­tinue to be trained and work in both the wild and cap­tiv­ity to help save some of the world’s most endan­gered animals.
(Dr. Erin Curry)

There is grow­ing inter­est in the util­i­sa­tion of dogs for med­ical pur­poses. Trained snif­fer dogs are employed in a vari­ety of roles, includ­ing the detec­tion of food aller­gens, the onset of seizures in epilep­tics, and alter­ations in blood sugar in dia­bet­ics. Some groups have even trained dogs to dis­tin­guish breath, blood, and fecal sam­ples orig­i­nat­ing from human patients with lung, ovar­ian, and colon can­cers from those of healthy individuals.

Polar bears (Ursus mar­itimus) depend on sea ice for every­thing (hunt­ing, den­ning, find­ing mates). Global warm­ing 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. Its sta­tus is regarded Vul­ner­a­ble accord­ing the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species. 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: 8 are declin­ing, 3 are sta­ble, and only 1 is increas­ing (data not avail­able for the other 7).

Unless we take action to reduce the green­house gas emis­sions respon­si­ble for global warm­ing, we could lose 23 of the world’s polar bears by mid-​century and all of them by the end of the cen­tury. “Polar bears are a high pro­file, flag­ship species for con­ser­va­tion. Sci­en­tists are dili­gently try­ing to learn all we can about them, in both the wild and cap­tiv­ity, as we develop action plans for their sur­vival,” said Dr. Curry. “It is not unlikely that work­ing with Elvis will be a crit­i­cal fac­tor in unlock­ing the mys­ter­ies of polar bear repro­duc­tion, con­tribut­ing towards sav­ing one of the world’s most beloved animals.”

(Source: Cincin­nati Zoo media release, 04.11.2013)

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