It's cute, it's important - it's a polar bear doing scientific research

It's cute, it's important - it's a polar bear doing scientific research
Polar bear Tasul wears a collar designed to collect data for research. Tasul is testing the collar so it can be used on wild polar bears to measure the effects of climate change. Oregon Zoo / photo by Michael Durham.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Idle paws are the devil’s playground.

So, the Oregon Zoo put Tasul the polar bear to work solving a climate-change mystery.

Tasul is wearing a high-tech collar fitted with something called an accelerometer, a device commonly used in cellphones that detects changes in movement and direction.

The U.S. Geological Survey will match the signal against a video recording of her to create a sort of digital fingerprint for polar bear behavior.

“Tasul was the perfect candidate for this study because she already participates in many health-care behaviors voluntarily, as opposed to requiring tranquilization,” said zoo curator Amy Cutting. “She doesn’t mind wearing the collar and actively cooperates. She is a very curious bear and seems interested in all the extra attention from keepers.”

It’s as cute as it is crucial.

Big picture, the idea is to test the collar on Tasul before using the technology on free-roaming bears in the Artic. Researchers want to get a better grasp on how and why polar bears react to climate change.

“Our research shows that polar bears are being displaced from sea ice habitats they formerly used,” said Anthony Pagano, a wildlife biologist with the USGS Alaska Science Center. “This collaborative project with the Oregon Zoo will help us understand the implications between going to land or staying with the ice as it retreats hundreds of kilometers north into the Arctic Basin.”

Even better, Tasul will also be wearing a camera attached to her collar – and you can see the footage online.

“There’s a lot we need to learn about how climate change is affecting polar bears,” Cutting said, “so it’s very rewarding to see Tasul offering researchers a chance to study this threatened species in a new way.”