Friday, November 29, 2013

Elvis the beagle and his power of pregnancy detection

So we all know the nose of a beagle is an amazing superpower

One beagle's made the news recently for what he can do with his special talent -- detect pregnant polar bears.

Kelly Green, the blogger behind SeaWorld Mommy, did this guest post for us on Elvis, who is putting his talents to use for SeaWorld.

When human females have an inkling they’re pregnant, it’s easy to determine whether or not the blessed event is imminent. What used to involve the loss of a rabbit (or at least her ovaries) to determine, is now done with a hormone-detecting home kit and a urine stream. For Polar Bears, the process to determine pregnancy is a bit more complicated and in some cases involves a dog, a beagle to be exact, whose ovaries are completely untouched. Confused?

Elvis tests samples. (Courtesy: Cincinnati Zoo Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife)
It’s long been known that a dog’s sense of smell is powerful, but scientists are only beginning to uncover the amazing range of scents in astoundingly minute amounts they can detect. In a recent German study, dogs were discovered to have the ability to detect lung cancer by smelling breath samples of cancer patients. In determining a polar bear’s maternal status, scientists at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) have enlisted the help of a two-year-old beagle named Elvis to “sniff out” the truth.

Matt Skogen, Professional Working Dog Trainer at Iron Heart High Performance Working Dogs was invited by Dr. Erin Curry from CREW to participate in the study to determine if dogs could provide early detection of pregnancy in Polar Bears. Dr. Curry is a Post-Doctoral Fellow studying polar bear reproduction. For the study, over 200 fecal samples of pregnant polar bears were sent to Iron Heart where Elvis began his training in identifying and remembering that “certain smell” that signaled a positive pregnancy status.

Szenja is making a den for herself at SeaWorld. (Courtesy: Cincinnati Zoo Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife)
After 10 months of training, Elvis was ready for his final exam. In late October, two samples each from 17 polar bears from 14 zoos throughout the U.S. and Canada were submitted for examination. One of the bears was Szenja, an 18-year-old polar bear from SeaWorld, SanDiego.

Results of the sniffing test for Szenja are positive, and with Elvis’ 97 percent success rate (almost that of a human hormone “stream” test), Szenja is most certainly going to be a mother soon. In the wild, pregnant polar bears spend their winters in dens. To simulate that environment, Szenja was provided with nest materials which she’s used to create a den in the back area of Wild Arctic. She’s also put on a significant amount of weight (currently 722 pounds), and is becoming a picky eater, refusing fats and biscuits and choosing mostly meats.

Because of habitat loss, polar bears are classified as a threatened species. According to the IUCN, a Polar Bear Specialist Group, of the 19 subpopulations of polar bears: 8 are declining, 3 are stable, and only 1 is increasing. By learning about polar bears in zoological settings, conservationists can do more to help protect them in the wild.

“Figuring out which component of the samples Elvis recognizes in the pregnant bears may allow us to work backwards and finally identify the polar bear pregnancy factor, once and for all,” said Dr. Curry.  “In addition, we are considering how sniffer dogs can continue to be trained and work in both the wild and captivity to help save some of the world’s most endangered animals.”

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