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3: Wednesday

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Zoo marks b-day of oldest male polar bear and his twin sis

November 25, 2015 - 12:26pm

Keepers plan a party for geriatric siblings Conrad and Tasul, who turn 30 on Dec. 1

Oregon Zoo polar bears Conrad and Tasul may be getting on in years, but they still like a good party, keepers say.

On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the popular brother-and-sister pair turn 31 — quite old for polar bears — and keepers will throw a birthday party at 10 a.m. that day with treats and enrichment items that encourage the bears to exercise and think critically.

"Conrad and Tasul have touched the hearts of zoo visitors and staff alike," said Nicole Nicassio-Hiskey, the zoo's senior marine animal keeper, who has worked with the two bears for more than 12 years. "We're having a party for them, with some of their favorite enrichment toys, icy treats, wrapped presents and some cream cheese for them to lick off the windows. It should be a lot of fun for visitors to watch too."

Conrad is the oldest male polar bear in any North American zoo or aquarium — and could be the oldest in the world, according to Nicassio-Hiskey.

"The median life expectancy for polar bears is 20.7 years for males and 24.2 years for females, so 30 is considered quite elderly both of them," she said. "You'd never know it to look at these two though — they're still very playful, especially in cooler weather. Our staff works hard to keep them healthy, active and engaged."

Conrad and Tasul were born Dec. 1, 1984, at the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C. and arrived in Portland in 1986. Although they are both doing well, animal-care staff have been monitoring them closely for several years and treating them for a variety of age-related ailments. In 2012, the pair were featured in an Oregonian article about elderly Oregon Zoo inhabitants that highlighted ways keepers and veterinary staff care for animals approaching the end of life.

In 2011, Conrad and Tasul became the first polar bears in the world to voluntarily give blood — a significant advance that improves animal welfare, especially during veterinary treatment. After reading about this milestone in The Oregonian, 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.

"We hope that visitors who join us for Conrad and Tasul's birthday celebration will be encouraged to help protect their relatives in the wild."

—Nicole Nicassio-Hiskey, senior keeper

Since then, Conrad and Tasul have helped Rode in her research on how climate change is affecting the diets of wild polar bears. Tasul has also 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.

Polar bears have been designated as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission has reclassified the polar bear as a vulnerable species and placed it on its Red List. The Red List identifies species facing a high risk of global extinction.

Polar bears are threatened by climate change, and if current climate warming trends are left unchecked, scientists predict the death of up to two-thirds of all wild polar bears by 2050. Global warming is melting the Arctic sea ice polar bears call home, and with it, access to the food and shelter necessary for the species' survival.

"We hope that visitors who join us for Conrad and Tasul's birthday celebration will be encouraged to help protect their relatives in the wild," Nicassio-Hiskey said. "By reducing our carbon footprint, we can help reverse warming trends."