You may have heard our animal care staff talk recently about a world first currently taking place at the Habitat; we have a potentially pregnant polar bear who is showing denning behaviour in a natural captive environment.
Taiga – the only female on site – could be pregnant. She also may not be.
We really have no way of knowing, since there isn’t a pregnancy test for polar bears. (Although we are currently working with a reproductive physiologist from the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife to try to create one.) And of course, physically, it is hard to guess if a 700-lb female is pregnant, since cubs are roughly one pound at birth.
We do know that she and Eddy are both sexually mature bears, and that they were housed together during breeding season before coming to Cochrane in February, while their home facility is renovated and enlarged. We were told that there was some breeding activity between them in Quebec. They have, however, been housed together during breeding season in the past and have not produced cubs.
But, for the first time, Taiga has had access to an expansive natural environment in which to dig a den in dirt and grass.
In early October, the animal care staff implemented the Maternity Plan, and Taiga was separated from all other bears. She was also given access to the lake enclosure and has had the choice to create a den in the soft sub-arctic substrate – and that’s exactly what she did.
All vehicles and non-essential personnel are now restricted from that area of the site. These restrictions will allow her to continue to perform these behaviours without disturbances.
Bears have created natural dens at the Habitat before. Aurora and Nikita (females) did it a decade ago, and Ganuk, Henry, and Inukshuk have all continued the work they started in a den in our Chukchi Enclosure during the fall. In the wild, polar bears of all ages and both sexes occupy dens, but pregnant females are the ones most likely to exhibit this behaviour.
However, as we work with the Species Survival Plan Polar Bear Program Coordinators, this is thought to be the first time that a potentially pregnant polar bear is showing denning behaviour in a natural captive environment.