Vandals studying WSU grizzlies

Our bears at the WSU Bear Center are here to advance knowledge of grizzly bears as a whole, not just for WSU research.

A grizzly bear sits in a cage sucking on a bottle filled with honey. Charlie Robbins holds a black flashlight attached to cables against her fur.
WSU grizzly Peeka gets honey while WSU’s Charlie Robbins and University of Idaho graduate student Savannah Rogers measure the reflectivity of her fur. They’re using special equipment that looks like a flashlight attached to cables, flown in with University of Wisconsin professor Warren Porter (upper right).

Along those lines, Ryan Long, an assistant professor at the University of Idaho, and Savannah Rogers, a UI graduate student, are working on a project with WSU’s Charlie Robbins.

Long’s research focuses on quantifying the costs of thermoregulation, or keeping body temperatures constant, for large mammals. He’s never worked with grizzlies before, but his research has involved working with large herbivores from all over the world.

“Charlie was interested in understanding how much a bear’s behavior and energy budget is constrained by their need to keep their body temperature constant,” Long said. “Grizzlies are really big and have thick fur, so they’re well adapted to cold temperatures. But they’re not as well adapted to warm temps.”

Bears need to keep their body temperatures consistent in the heat of summer, and that takes energy and water. Long and Robbins want to know how hot temperatures must get before they affect what bears can and can’t do during the day.

This summer, Long and Rogers are collecting data by measuring several characteristics of the bears’ fur, including depth, density, solar reflectivity, and more. All to see how that fur influences their ability to stay cool in the heat. The project also includes Warren Porter, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and an expert on climate change effects on animals. Porter’s lab also has high-tech infrared and reflectivity equipment that will be invaluable on the research.

Three people look intently at a computer monitor surrounded by chain link fence and a tree-filled background.
Ryan Long, Warren Porter, and Savannah Rogers (left to right) look at the data they collected from their reflectivity measurements on three WSU bears. Long and Rogers are with the University of Idaho and Porter is a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

“Large bodied animals are really sensitive to hot temperatures,” Long said. “So they could be among the first species affected by a warmer environment. If there’s a potential for climate change to impact grizzlies, which are an iconic species of conservation concern, we want to know about that and be able to predict it.”

Later this summer and into the fall, Rogers will analyze the collected data using a suite of different models to inform our understanding of how grizzlies will be affected by our warming planet.

They also plan to apply their models to wild grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park to see how they could be affected.

Long never had a specific goal to work with grizzlies, but the project is a good fit for his research interests.

“I’m interested in understanding the effects and impacts of temperature changes on animals in general,” Long said. “But bears are a great model species, and this project has far-reaching implications for conservation because they impact so many other plants and animals in the ecosystem.”