Nora's here! Beloved polar bear has arrived at Oregon Zoo

September 15, 2016 - 12:27pm

Young bear could advance research on how sea-ice loss affects polar bears in the wild

Nora, the young polar bear who has captivated much of the country since her birth at the Columbus Zoo last November, has arrived at the Oregon Zoo.

The 10-month-old cub will move to the polar bear habitat after 30 days in quarantine — standard practice for animal health. Oregon Zoo visitors will be able to see Nora in her new home in mid-October. While Nora will remain behind the scenes during her quarantine period, the zoo will provide regular updates to supporters in Oregon, Ohio and beyond.

Keepers said Nora — like the keepers who accompanied her on the move last night — is still adjusting to the time change but otherwise making herself right at home.

"She seems very comfortable," said Amy Cutting, who oversees the zoo's marine life area. "She's a bit jet-lagged, but she ate a big breakfast this morning, went for several swims, played in a big pile of ice and enjoyed some epic back-scratching sessions."

Once Nora transitions, keepers believe the good-natured, 31-year-old female polar bear Tasul is likely to befriend her, and can serve as a mentor to the juvenile bear as she grows into an adult.

"They haven't met yet, but Tasul knows she's here," Cutting said. "She's very curious, and our keepers are giving her some extra TLC in addition to caring for Nora."

Nora's birth was significant for animal-care facilities across the country, since polar bear births are relatively rare. Born blind, helpless and less than a pound in weight, these mammals have only a 50 percent survival rate in their first weeks of life, both in nature and in human care.

"We have an amazing keeper team here, which has enabled our bears to participate in critical conservation science," Cutting said. "We anticipate continuing that with Nora through some cooperative training, which the Columbus Zoo staff have already begun with her in order to provide the best possible care."

Nora was introduced to her newest care team when two Oregon Zoo keepers spent a week working with her in Ohio. The cub is particularly close with her Columbus Zoo team: Keepers took over her care after her mother began leaving her unattended in the den for prolonged periods of time. Nora weighed about 1 pound when they began raising her; she now weighs more than 150. Her Columbus Zoo care team traveled with her to Portland to support her transition. One of Nora's Columbus keepers will remain with her for a week to help her settle in to her new home.

Polar bears are threatened by climate change; they're designated as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and they're on the World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission's Red List identifying species at high risk of global extinction. If current climate warming trends are left unchecked, scientists predict wild polar bear populations will decline by up to two-thirds by 2050. Rising temperatures are melting the Arctic sea-ice shelf that polar bears use to access their primary food, ringed seals, and that provides necessary shelter. The melting landscape creates a dangerous survival cycle for the bears; they have less solid ice surface on which to hunt, which means more swimming, which requires more calories, which can only be consumed through more hunting.

Tasul and Nora represent significant advancements in the welfare of polar bears. In 2011, Tasul became the first polar bear in the world to voluntarily give blood — a cooperative procedure that improves animal welfare, especially during veterinary treatment. After reading about this milestone in the news, Dr. Karyn Rode, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Polar Bear Team, contacted the zoo for assistance with the USGS's Changing Arctic Ecosystems research.

Since then, Tasul has helped Rode research how climate change is affecting the diets of wild polar bears and has helped the USGS in tackling another climate change mystery, by wearing a high-tech collar to track her movements. Polar bears are extremely difficult to observe in the wild, and Tasul's data is helping researchers develop methods to remotely investigate how these predators are responding to the retreat of sea ice.

At the Oregon Zoo, Nora, born Nov. 6, 2015, will contribute to conservation science.

"The scientists we collaborate with are interested in getting information from more than one bear, and the age difference between the two is a valuable contrast as we try to understand how sea-ice loss will affect polar bears during different stages of life," Cutting said. "Tasul is a geriatric bear, and Nora is quite young. It could be that we learn different things about polar bears from each of them."

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan (SSP) recommended Nora's transfer to the Oregon Zoo so that the Columbus Zoo could provide the best environment for future cubs to be born. Would-be mothers require calm and quiet, which would not have been possible with the scheduled habitat rotations that occurred with Nora.

The SSP recommendation was issued after Tasul lost her brother and longtime habitat companion, Conrad — the oldest male of his species in any North American zoo or aquarium — who was humanely euthanized in July.

The Oregon Zoo has recently launched design of a new polar bear habitat, Polar Passage, the sixth of eight major construction projects funded by a public bond passed in 2008.