To protect the species, two female polar bears from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium have been artificially inseminated, the zoo announced last week.
If successful, it would be the first birth of the species due to artificial insemination, according to the zoo.
The Columbus Zoo’s animal health and care teams have been involved in the process on the twin cubs, Anana and Aurora, in hopes they will produce future cubs. The procedure took place on March 17 at the Powell Zoo, after months of planning.
Unlike humans, there’s no way to tell if a polar bear is pregnant until shortly before she gives birth, which in this case would be expected in November or December.
According to the zoo, the animals received sperm from Lee, a male polar bear from the Louisville Zoo, who lived at the Columbus Zoo from November 2018 to August 2020. While in Columbus, Lee fathered a male cub, Kulu , with Aurora.
The two sisters, nearly 16, are proven breeders and in their early breeding years, zoo officials said. Aurora has already given birth to three litters consisting of four survivor cubs, while her sister has produced one survivor cub.
Artificial insemination offers advantages over natural breeding, including reducing the need to move bears to different facilities to ensure genetic diversity, zoo officials said.
“Zoos play a vital role in advancing research into the breeding of these species and how science can be applied to help stabilize wildlife populations,” said Tom Schmid, president and chief of the management of the zoo, in written remarks.
A team of researchers overseeing polar bear breeding work is led by Erin Curry of the Lindner Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.
The process is a relatively new reproductive technology in polar bears that has been attempted with expertise from CREW. Of the other 14 attempts in North America — and some 20 others around the world — none produced offspring, zoo officials said.
According to the zoo’s medical teams, the procedures went as planned. Although the results remain unknown at this time, the twins have gained weight, indicating that they could be pregnant. Polar bear mothers must have enough fat reserves on their bodies to produce enough milk for their cubs.
The Columbus Zoo in 2016 was the only zoo in North America to house polar bear cubs. All of those cubs are now adult bears that live in other zoos across the country and will hopefully breed in the future, zoo officials said.
Since 2008, the zoo has contributed over $250,000 to research to benefit Arctic polar bears.
that the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, leading to record losses of sea ice, one of the biggest threats to polar bears.
In 2008, the polar bear became the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened primarily due to climate change. Polar bears are native to the circumpolar north, including Alaska, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark. They are at the top of the arctic food chain and primarily eat seals.
Some experts estimate that there are only 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left in their original range and say that if the warming trend continues, two-thirds of those that remain could be extinct by 2050.