Is Zoo Female Polar Bear Pregnant?

(Pittsburgh) (November 2013)—His name his Elvis and he is a two-year-old beagle who has a unique nose that sniffs out pregnancies in polar bears in zoos throughout North America. 

Elvis, the beagle and a team of scientists at the Cincinnati Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) are working together to determine if the sensitive noses of canines can detect a pregnant polar bear form a non-pregnant polar simply by smelling fecal samples.

“We knew that our male Koda and female Kobe had mated several times during breeding season,” says Dwayne Biggs, Curator of Aquatic Life at PPG Aquarium and Water’s Edge. “But trying to determine whether or not your bear is pregnant can be a guessing game. The more traditional methods of pregnancy detection such as progesterone monitoring and ultrasound are not as effective in polar bears as other animals.”
But when the Pittsburgh Zoo heard about the research at the Cincinnati Zoo, keepers were eager to participate. CREW Scientists have teamed up with professional dog trainer Matt Skogen, owner of IronHeart High Performance Working Dogs, to determine pregnancy in polar bears.

“We sent our samples and now the waiting game is underway,” says Biggs. “We are keeping our fingers and paws crossed that Kobe is pregnant.

“This is the first time sniffer dogs have been used in biomedical research as it relates to any wildlife species, making this project a truly one-of-a kind,” says Dr. Erin Curry, a Post-Doctoral Fellow, studying polar bear reproduction at CREW.

Elvis has proven he has a nose for this type of experiment as he is demonstrating a 97% accuracy rate in positive identification of samples from pregnant polar bear females.  He is almost as accurate as the 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,” says Dr. Curry. “Matt and his team at IronHeart 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.

Thirty-four samples, two samples from each of the 17 female polar bears in North American zoos who mated in the spring were sent to the Cincinnati Zoo for Elvis to sniff.  The 17 female polar bears, which also includes the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s Kobe, could be potentially pregnant.

For the next couple of weeks, Elvis will test and re-test all of the samples to come up with his predictions. Then Dr. Curry will begin letting the institutions know whether or not their female is pregnant.

“We are very excited about the possibility of Kobe being pregnant,” says Biggs. “And we are anxiously awaiting news.”