ZOOS in the United States are hoping a beagle named Elvis can let them know when their polar bears are pregnant.
The two-year-old dog has been specially trained for a year by a handler who has taught other dogs to sniff out everything from explosives to bed bugs. A Cincinnati Zoo animal conservation scientist had the idea after reading about studies on using dogs to detect cancer.
Confirming pregnancies of the massive bears, a threatened species, is difficult, but zoo officials said knowing can help make sure staff and the mother bears are ready for the birth and bringing up cubs. Keepers can separate them from male bears, get them into dens with extra bedding and set up monitoring programmes.
Dr Randi Meyerson of Toledo Zoo, who co-ordinates polar bear species survival planning for the US Association of Zoos and Aquariums, praised the beagle project as “thinking outside the box” to provide a potentially important new tool.
She said it is non-invasive and simple for zookeepers, who pick up faecal samples for Elvis to check out.
Matt Skogen, a former police officer who runs Ironheart High Performance Working Dogs in Shawnee, Kansas, trained Elvis. He said: “We didn’t even know if this was possible.”
He said he was intrigued when Erin Curry, a post-doctoral fellow at Cincinnati Zoo’s Centre for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife, called for someone willing to test the idea after the centre identified proteins that were present only in pregnant bears’ samples.
Mr Skogen started with samples of bears that had delivered cubs, and from some known not to be pregnant as they hadn’t mated. “Elvis was very methodical,” Mr Skogen said. “You could tell he was really running it through the think-tank.”
Rewarded with food and getting to play with his favourite squeaky duck toy, Elvis trained for months and can now identify samples from previously pregnant bears with a high level of accuracy. Last week Ms Curry brought Elvis new samples, and watched as he reacted to a control sample of a bear that had already delivered.
“He sat right down. I thought, ‘Whew, this works!’” she said.
Elvis has been checking samples of 22 female bears from 14 zoos, while Mr Skogen logs his reactions. Ms Curry will inform the other zoos whether Elvis predicts they’ll be hearing the pitter-patter of little paws.
Ms Meyerson, whose Toledo Zoo produced two of the only three cubs born in American zoos last year, recommends that institutions continue monitoring and put female bears into dens if they have mated, even if Elvis’s new sniff test indicates they aren’t pregnant.
Polar bears have complicated reproductive cycles, and zoos have found that false pregnancies are common. Better results from captive breeding of polar bears can help scientists learn more about their reproduction and also help public awareness.
With the bears’ long-term survival believed to be under threat through the impact of climate change on icy habitats, species advocates such as Polar Bears International say zoo bears can play important roles.
Its spokeswoman, Barbara Nielsen, said: “They serve as ambassadors for their species, and there are studies that can be done in zoos that would be impossible in the wild.”