The science behind Elvis and the polar bears

Dec 4, 2013

You might have heard about the polar bear poop sniffing dog Elvis who tries to determine which polar bears are pregnant, as reported by WVXU in this story. Here he is in suburban Kansas City taking a whiff of each sample and sitting when there is an indication of a pregnancy.

It was Dr. Erin Curry's idea to use a dog to detect polar bear pregnancy. She works at the Cincinnati Zoo's Lindner Center for CREW. (Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife) At IronHeart high performance and working dogs, diferent breeds are used in fire and drug investigations and to sniff out things like bed bugs and toxic mold. Curry called IronHeart and the polar bear project began.

  • Polar bears have been listed as a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act and researchers are interested in finding out a more exact test to determine pregnancy.

Why it's hard to detect pregnancy in polar bears:

  1. Urine samples are watered down because polar bears are wet
  2. There are a lot of false positives

Since 2008 the Cincinnati Zoo has been collecting polar bear fecal samples and now has a freezer full of about 14,000 from about 18 zoos. Curry has determined there are 2,200 proteins present in each poop sample. Five of the proteins increase when a polar bear is pregnant. She still needs to know which component of the fecal sample Elvis is actually sniffing. This biomarker could be used to develop a scientific based protein test for zoos and for the wild.

Elvis's latest test of 17 females from North American zoos indicates just a few are pregnant.  Berit, at the Cincinnati Zoo, is not.