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Mother bear knows best place to call home

pub­lished 23 Jan­u­ary 2013 | mod­i­fied 23 Jan­u­ary 2013

Grizzlymum cubsMama bear appears to know what’s best when it comes to select­ing a place to call home, accord­ing to a new Uni­ver­sity of Alberta (U of A) study.

The research, which may ulti­mately help pro­tect Alberta’s dwin­dling pop­u­la­tion of griz­zly bears, is among the first of its kind to test the nature-​versus-​nurture debate on how large, free-​ranging wildlife select habi­tat.

Lead author Scott Nielsen, assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Renew­able Resources, and head researcher in the U of A’s Applied Con­ser­va­tion Ecol­ogy (ACE) Lab, teamed with one of the lab’s post-​doctoral fel­lows, Aaron Shafer, and pro­fes­sor Mark Boyce of the Depart­ment of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences for the four-​year study.

The find­ings sug­gest that habi­tat selec­tion is learnt by young griz­zly bears from their moth­ers and would likely be a more adap­tive strat­egy than using instinct
Scott Nielsen, lead author »
Pub­lished in the Jan­u­ary 16 issue of the open access jour­nal PLOS ONE, their work explored whether the mater­nal rear­ing of cubs shaped which habi­tats griz­zly bears even­tu­ally choose. Nielsen said, “There are a num­ber of strate­gies that appear to be handed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion from mother to off­spring. It’s the ‘nur­ture’ side of the equa­tion that is shap­ing the life of the bear.”

The study is part of ongo­ing work by Nielsen and a team of master’s stu­dents and PhD can­di­dates who study con­ser­va­tion issues related to species at risk, such as griz­zlies, to help in their pop­u­la­tion recov­ery. Other cur­rent research includes work on lizards, otters, boreal for­est bio­di­ver­sity and restora­tion of degraded ecosys­tems.

Through the ACE lab, U of A sci­en­tists are iden­ti­fy­ing crit­i­cal habi­tats and needs of threat­ened species such as griz­zlies, and deter­min­ing the most effec­tive man­age­ment actions for their recov­ery.

The griz­zly study, con­ducted in the foothills of west-​central Alberta, tracked 32 adult and young griz­zly bears that had been fit­ted with GPS radio col­lars. The ani­mals’ move­ments were mon­i­tored from 31,849 loca­tions span­ning 9,752 square kilo­me­tres. Nielsen and his team observed that genet­i­cally related female bears shared habi­tat selec­tion pat­terns regard­less of their loca­tion, whereas male bears related to one another did not.

This sug­gests that there are dif­fer­ent habi­tat selec­tion strate­gies used by griz­zly bears and that these are learnt early in life, because male bears don’t par­tic­i­pate in parental care,” Nielsen said.

The griz­zly is con­sid­ered a threat­ened species in Alberta (there are fewer than 700 in the province), and if their habitat-​use strate­gies are indeed learnt from early expe­ri­ences, “then the habi­tats cho­sen for relo­ca­tion of ‘prob­lem’ bears or to sup­ple­ment threat­ened pop­u­la­tions would be impor­tant,” Nielsen said.

Know­ing that habi­tat selec­tion is part of a learnt behav­iour, con­ser­va­tion­ists tasked with relo­cat­ing bears far from the ani­mals’ known envi­ron­ments should pay close atten­tion to the habi­tats into which they are released, he added.

The research was funded by the Nat­ural Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Canada, the Alberta Con­ser­va­tion Asso­ci­a­tion and part­ners from the Foothills Research Insti­tute Griz­zly Bear Pro­gram.

The above news item is reprinted from mate­ri­als avail­able at Uni­ver­sity of Alberta. Orig­i­nal text may be edited for con­tent and length.
(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Alberta News, 21.01.2013)

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