Scientific bling on WSU bears

If you haven’t noticed, several of our bears at the Washington State University Bear Center have some new brightly colored jewelry: energy-monitoring collars.

An energy monitoring collar, in place.

The collars will collect vital information from the bears and contribute to a research project run by WSU doctoral student Tony Carnahan.

“These basically work like fancy FitBits,” Carnahan said. “They’re way more complex than that, but they do give us 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. Once calibrated, they will ultimately tell us the energetic costs for wild bears living in different environments.”

This research, part of his doctoral dissertation, will compare the results compiled from our bears to results taken from collared grizzlies in the wild.

“We want to see what it costs bears to live on the landscape,” he said. “Different bears have different behaviors and foraging strategies based on where they live. The treadmill will give us a baseline to use with wild bears that live near the Alaska coast or in the Rocky Mountains.”

To get those baseline readings, our bears will walk at different speeds and have their energy usage measured at each pace. Results will be correlated to each bear’s heart rate.

Our bears have been training on the treadmill for over a month now, and measurements for Carnahan’s project will start around June 19. Seven of the center’s 11 bears will take part in the study.

Another goal for the study is to link wild grizzly behavior with their movement and energy usage, Carnahan said. For example, he noted that some bears in Alaska will travel incredible distances to get to salmon streams. He wants to see what the energy tradeoff is for bears that travel these distances to find prolific feeding grounds versus if they simply stayed put.

“It must be worth the energetic cost to travel that far,” Carnahan said. “But we want to see what that cost is, and if small changes in their environment would alter their movements.”