Tatqiq, a female polar bear at the San Diego Zoo, is wearing a bit more than her fur coat these days. Visitors to the Zoo and watchers of the Zoo’s Polar Cam may see a white collar occasionally around her neck while keepers are conditioning the bear to participate in an upcoming research project about polar bear behaviour in the Arctic.
For now, the collar is held together with temporary, easy-to-remove ties so that the bear can choose to pull it off or it will fall off easily if snagged on anything within the Polar Bear Plunge exhibit. Eventually, Tatqiq will wear a collar with a small accelerometer, which is the same instrument that allows smart phones to automatically adjust their screen orientation.
The instrument is able to measure Tatqiq’s movements at extremely high frequencies; however, these measurements are abstract without seeing the behaviours they correspond with so Tatqiq will also be videotaped while wearing the collar. The data recorded from the collar will be paired with her movements on the video so researchers can interpret the data and understand which measurements correspond to different behaviours, such as diving into the water, resting, walking or running.
Measuring Tatqiq’s movements at the San Diego Zoo will provide a baseline by which to identify behaviours for bears wearing the accelerometer collars in the wild. The polar bear’s remote Arctic sea ice habitat makes it near impossible for direct observations of polar bear behaviour in the wild. The data gained from accelerometers on collared polar bears in the Arctic will provide U.S. Geological Survey scientists with new insights into the bears’ daily behaviour, movements and energy needs and a better understanding of the effects of climate change on polar bears.
Because animal care staff does not have direct contact with Tatqiq, modifications were made to an area in the polar bear bedroom to allow the collar to be placed on Tatqiq’s neck while she slurps a honey-water treat.
Tatqiq currently wears the collar about three times a week for two to three hours at a time, working up to a goal of five hours. While she is wearing the collar, she is the only polar bear allowed in the habitat.
The San Diego Zoo is home to three polar bears: Tatqiq, her brother Kalluk and another female, Chinook. Polar bears are a threatened species due to climate change-driven habitat loss.
(Source: San Diego Zoo polar bear blogs, 26.11.2014; USGS Alaska Science Center, Polar bear research)