Attaching a tracking collar to a polar bear is hard enough. But it’s all the more challenging because eventually researchers have to remove it, too. So Polar Bears International reached out to 3M to see if the company, known for its expertise in making things stick, could come up with a less permanent way to tag the 450-kilogram carnivores so that eventually the trackers would fall off all on their own.
Having to sedate a bear and ensure that its hungry family members aren’t around aren’t the only challenges involved with tagging polar bears. Collars can only be attached to female bears because the necks on fully grown males are as wide as their heads, upping the odds they can easily shrug the collars off. Collaring adolescents males isn’t an option either, because polar bears grow too quickly and the collar could soon end up becoming a choking hazard. Ear tags and implants are possible alternatives given how small GPS electronics have become, but the former is a permanent solution, and the latter requires minor surgery in the field. As a result, most of the research around tracking the movements and migration patterns of polar bears through their habitats are limited to females.
To come up with better ways to tag polar bears in the wild, BJ Kirschhoffer, the director of field operations at Polar Bears International, reached out to his dad, Jon, who happens to be an advanced research specialist at 3M’s Corporate Research Systems Lab. If you’ve ever used a Post-It note or Scotch tape, then you know that 3M specialises in making things stick, often temporarily. So the senior Kirschhoffer started the “tag-a-bear” challenge to encourage the company’s researchers to come up with ways to securely stick tags and tracking devices to polar bear fur.
Over the course of two years, several alternatives to collars, ear tags, and implants were created. They were eventually narrowed down to four prototypes that are currently being tested on polar bears in northern Manitoba, Canada, and will be further tested on bears in captivity in zoos and aquariums. Some of the solutions use approaches right out of 3M’s standard playbook, including a five-armed mount that uses adhesives to securely trap and hold onto a polar bear’s fur, and a similar design that uses a Velcro-like fastener system instead where two sections of each arm attach to each other while securely trapping and gripping a bear’s fur in-between. Were one of these arms to come loose over time, there are four others that can serve as redundant backups.
One of the more creative solutions took inspiration from Mother Nature, specifically the way plants use sticky burrs and animals to spread their seeds. But instead of tiny thorns or thistles, a mounting plate featured three channels where water bottle brushes could be inserted and twisted to wind and entrap the bear’s fur in the plastic bristles. Once inserted and secured the long wire handles of the bottle brushes are simply snipped off, leaving the top bristled portion holding the tag in place.
Though they each take different approaches, what all four prototypes share is their ability to continue to work in sub-freezing temperatures, snow, and saltwater. They can even survive a roll in the tundra, as polar bears wont to do, without dislodging. They can also be applied to adults — males and females — as well as adolescents without any risk to the animal’s safety or comfort, which means researchers could glean a much richer understanding of polar bear behaviour. Some of the prototypes are expected to stay attached to a polar bear’s fur for more than nine months at a time, and those that don’t naturally fall off when a bear begins to moult can be easily removed with a haircut — but not enough to affect the animal’s ability to endure the cold.
Applying the tags still requires the animals to be sedated first, but eventually, as the new tag solutions are deployed in the wild and improved over time, attaching a GPS tracker to a bear could be as easy as sticking a Post-It note to your computer screen. As it stands, being able to safely tag any size or shape of bear in the wild will improve the quality of the research data that’s collected, allowing researchers to better target conservation strategies as the the world warms and polar bear habitat and behaviour is impacted (to say nothing of the impact oil and gas extraction is having). The trackers will also help better protect those that call the north home allowing communities like Churchill, notorious for its local polar bear communities that like to visit, to better protect residents and keep tabs on bears that are close enough to pose a threat.