Bears on a treadmill: for science, not exercise

The grizzly bears at the WSU Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center have a treadmill, but it’s not exercise equipment to get in shape. This heavily reinforced piece of equipment is helping scientists learn more about how much energy bears use when they’re walking at various speeds.

It’s not easy to get bears to use a treadmill, and bribery is required. Treats are offered to get the bears into the plexiglass-encased treadmill and also while they’re using the equipment.

The bears enter the equipment via an access panel at the back. Then they get fed at the front. The treadmill has sensors to monitor how much oxygen and carbon dioxide the bears are breathing in and out while they’re participating.

It took Bear Center staff several months to train seven of the center’s 11 bears to use the equipment. The entire time a bear is on the treadmill, they receive hot dogs, dog biscuits, apples, cookies, and other incentives.

Speeds are kept very low, no bears are jogging. The top speed is just five kilometers per hour, or just over three miles per hour. And the moment a bear walking on the treadmill loses focus, staffers slow down the speed even further and stop the belt to make sure the bears are kept safe.

The treadmill is currently being used in two separate experiments to research bears and their energy use.

One of our WSU grizzlies sitting on the treadmill after taking part in a session on the equipment.
One of our WSU grizzlies sitting on the treadmill after taking part in a session on the equipment.

The first experiment involves figuring out how efficient grizzlies are compared to polar bears, as the two species increasingly become competitors in the warming Arctic. This past winter, while the treadmill was in southern California, a polar bear at the San Diego Zoo spent time lying and walking on the treadmill and researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz measured the energy costs.

The second involves the colorful collars you now see on many of our bears. The collars work like fitness tracker wristbands for people, though they’re more complex than that. They give researchers all sorts of feedback on the energy used when the bears are initially walking on the treadmill and engaged in various activities in the yard.

The collars provide feedback on how active the bears are at a given speed. This will allow the scientists to relate the data collected at WSU to bears in the wild that are often fitted with similar collars.

The treadmill will be at the Bear Center all summer, then may be traveling to another facility over the winter.