Stick a Burr in Their Fur

Image for the article A better way to track polar bears: put a bite in their fur

picture: Photos: Shutterstock Graphics: Vicky Leta

Researchers at Polar Bears International, York University, and 3M are among the winners 2023 Gizmodo Science Fair to develop a spiky-like tracking device that sticks to the fur of polar bears.

the question

Is there a better way to track polar bears in the Arctic that avoids the problems with collars and ear tags?


A team of researchers from Polar Bears International, 3M, the University of York and participating zoos has worked to create a polar bear tracking device that can be safely attached to most polar bears. They thought about how the bumps stick to the fur of animals, hanging on even when the animal travels long distances. They began developing the “fur-on-whiz”, a tracking device that is placed on the fur at the back of a bear’s neck. The best time to put these trackers on is fall, when that fluffy white fur becomes thicker in preparation for winter.

Finding the right design was a challenge. They created several models of attachments, which they tested on faux fur and real bears. One is pentagon-shaped, with a tracker box on a small platform. The fur is pulled through copper tubes, which the researchers then crimp to hold the fur in place. Another is the triangular brush attachment, which looks like a metal triangle with a sturdy pipe cleaner like brush on each side that tangles in bear fur. Other prototypes included Velcro-like adhesives and attachments.

The team partnered with zoos to further test the tracer on real bears before releasing it into the wild. So far, they’ve delivered trackers to polar bears in western and southern Hudson Bay in Canada.

Researchers usually track polar bears by looking for them from a helicopter, then calming the bear down and putting on an ear tag or collar. Collars only work on adult female bears, because their heads tend to be wider than those of male bears. Young bears grow very quickly; A collar that fits them today will be dangerously small in less than a year.

Image for the article A better way to track polar bears: put a bite in their fur

clarification: Vicki Lita

Using ear tags is an invasive method, but the new tracer does not involve piercing the skin. The boar tracker on the fur allowed the researchers to place trackers on polar bears of all ages and sizes.

Trackers provide researchers with satellite data about the bear’s location. University of York professor Gregory Thiemann explained that researchers email coordinates that they plot on GIS or Google Maps and use to learn patterns. During a posting in late 2021, Thiemann and other researchers saw that in the fall bears spend a lot more time resting and eventually becoming more active as the weather gets colder.

Why did they do that

Understand how [polar bears are] Using their environment is very important while making sure we can protect those areas going forward, said BJ Kirschhoffer, director of conservation technology for Polar Bears International. “If we can see the areas where it persists, those are places that really need to be protected, because we’re slowing down our emissions.”

“I honestly think the most promising application of the sign is to monitor adult males, especially with regard to the problem of polar bears. Even in communities They monitor problem bears, said Tyler Ross, a PhD candidate who has analyzed some of the burr-tracking data, such as Churchill and North. “If they are coming into communities, these tags can be used to track their movements.”

“Understanding the types of habitats they use on ice and in the wild is essential to identifying critical habitats under the Endangered Species legislation,” said Professor Gregory Thiemann from the University of York. “It’s important to understand migration routes, as bears move in different seasons.”

“I feel very fortunate to have spent my career on polar bears. Both on the research side and on the conservation side,” said Jeff York, team scientist for Polar Bears International. “They gave me a career in trying to understand them, and I owe them something in return.”

Why are they winners?

This team has found a less invasive way to track endangered species beloved around the world. Several groups dedicated to creating the multiple attachments used for the “bumps” got together, and conducted extensive testing in the lab, in captivity, and on bears in the wild.

These tracking tools will allow conservationists to learn more about how polar bears move and how they interact with the environment around them. Trackers can also be used to support community safety. Several researchers have pointed out how these tracking devices can better support Arctic communities that need to know if a bear is getting too close to people.

What then

The team plans to continue testing the trackers. Right now, some of the trackers stay on the bears for about 100 days, which the researchers say is plenty of time to plot the data. But they hope to learn how different attachments the bears have can remain and function, no matter how far the bears have traveled and the environments they visit, such as ice in the sea or with cubs in caves. When hunting, polar bears also swim great distances, so researchers want to make sure the burrowing tracker survives during these types of strenuous activities.

John Kirchoffer said he was surprised when a tracker fell off a bear that was roaming around the willow. Discuss the reason for his separation from his son, BJ. He said, “Polar bears are a lot like tanks. They’re going in a direction and whatever’s in their path, they’re rolling [it]Kirchoffer said. “We’ve had tests in the lab…even the best tests will never represent what animals will actually do.”

There are other information gaps that researchers hope to fill in, particularly with less-studied adult male polar bears. Thiemann explained that some male bears congregate along the shores of the bay and hang out. They play and wrestle, so future attachments must remain constant if we are to learn more about these adult male bears.

the team

Kevin Bangin, 3M Chief Technology Officer providing 3D technical support; Andrew Desrocher, Professor of Biology at the University of Alberta; George Dorner, former USGS research zoologist; Jennifer Ehrlich, Senior Communications Manager at 3M; Lindsey Hines, Research Specialist at 3M; Chris Kelton, Advanced Prototype Engineer for 3M; Kirchhofer, Polar Bears International Director of Conservation Technologies; John Kirchoffer, former advanced research scientist at 3M; Marisa Cross, Director of Conservation Programs for Polar Bears International; Joseph Northrup of the Ontario Department of Natural Resources and Forests; Evelyn Padilla, Digital Marketing Lead for 3M; Tyler Ross, University of York researcher and PhD candidate; Vasav Sahni, former Advanced Research Specialist at 3M; Gregory W. Thiemann, Associate Professor, University of York; Vicki Trim, Manitoba Regional Wildlife Director; and Jeff York, Senior Director of Polar Bears International Nature Conservancy and Staff Scientist.

In association with the following aquariums and zoos: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium; Kansas City Zoo; Columbus Zoo and Aquarium; San Diego Zoo, Como Park Zoo; the Oregon Zoo; the Louisville Zoo; the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore; Hogle Zoo in Utah; Assiniboine Park Zoo and Toronto Zoo in Canada; and Skandinavisk Dyrepark in Denmark.

Forget collars – there’s a gentler way to track polar bears in the Arctic

See the full list of Gizmodo Science Fair winners


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