Born at the Columbus Zoo, the almost two-year-old polar bear is diving in to his new life in Minnesota
In the wild, polar bear cubs will often spend up to two years with their mothers, learning how to survive in the Arctic wilderness. But in zoos working to create the right breeding conditions for this vulnerable species, young bears sometimes have to leave the nest a little earlier.
That’s how Como Zoo became the new home for Kulu, a young polar bear born at the Columbus Zoo on Thanksgiving Day 2019. As his mother showed signs she was ready to begin breeding again, members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Polar Bear Species Survival Plan decided it was time for Kulu to make his move to Minnesota in October.
“He was still nursing, so this is a big adjustment for him, but he’s doing really well,” says Como Zoo senior keeper Allison Jungheim, who also serves as the program leader of the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan committee, a group of experts throughout North America who collaborate to manage the population, genetic diversity, and health of polar bears in zoos. “He’s a pretty intense little bear, smart as a whip, but this is his first time away from mom, so we’re giving him any treats he wants right now to help ease his transition.”
The comfort food 725-pound Kulu likes best includes marshmallows, whipped cream, honey, the occasional watermelon and apple butter—a shopping list of high-value sweets that aren’t nearly as motivating for Polar Bear Odyssey’s older residents Neil and Nan. “Kulu’s keepers in Columbus also used rainbow sherbet as a reward for recall, which is a new one for us,” says Jungheim.
Because Polar Bear Odyssey has two separate habitats, Kulu was able to finish his 30-day quarantine period in the deep pool, where he’s been demonstrating his dog paddle for visitors daily. Soon keepers will begin introducing him to Nan, an older female bear who’s about half his size, but who “we don’t think will have any problem holding her own with a younger bear,” Jungheim says.
If you’ve come to visit Kulu, you may have noticed that he’s got a triangle-shaped tag attached to the fur right between his shoulder blades. It’s a GPS tracking device being tested as part of the “Burr on Fur” program, an innovative partnership with the conservation group Polar Bears International and Minnesota-based 3M, committed to finding a minimally invasive way of tracking wild polar bears.
“Traditionally, scientists have used satellite collars to follow polar bears, but the collars can only be placed on adult females,” said Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International. “Adult males can’t be collared because their necks are as wide as their heads, and young bears grow too quickly to be safely collared. As transmitters have become smaller researchers have tested GPS ear tags and implants. But ear tags must be permanently attached, and implants require minor surgery. The devices designed by 3M represent a major potential step forward—they could be used on all classes of polar bears and would allow us to obtain critical data with the least impact possible.”
Como Zoo keepers will help with the research, reporting how the tracking device holds up to Kulu’s daily life. “Because the device is made to withstand Arctic temperatures and stays attached to fur, there’s the potential that these tags could be used not just for polar bears, but for other species around the world,” says Jungheim.