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Elvis the beagle called in to sniff out pregnancy in zoo's polar bear

| Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, 3:30 p.m.
Tom Fontaine | Tribune-Review
Kobe, an 11-year-old polar bear at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, showed signs of being pregnant. Traditional pregnancy tests aren't as effective with polar bears, so local officials turned to a beagle that can smell pheromones in the feces of pregnant polar bears.
Cincinnati Zoo
Elvis, a 2-year-old beagle, has a unique nose that sniffs out pregnancies in polar bears in zoos throughout North America. Elvis and a team of scientists at the Cincinnati Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) are working together to determine if the sensitive noses of canines can detect a pregnant polar bear from a nonpregnant polar simply by smelling fecal samples. “We knew that our male Koda and female Kobe had mated several times during breeding season,” says Dwayne Biggs, Curator of Aquatic Life at PPG Aquarium and Water’s Edge. “But trying to determine whether or not your bear is pregnant can be a guessing game. The more traditional methods of pregnancy detection such as progesterone monitoring and ultrasound are not as effective in polar bears as other animals.”

If Kobe the polar bear is pregnant, Elvis the beagle could sniff out the secret and let Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium officials know.

Elvis, a 2-year-old pup from suburban Kansas City, performs an unusual but stunningly accurate pregnancy test: He sniffs out pheromones in female polar bears' feces that let him know whether they are with cub.

Elvis is right about 97 percent of the time, making him about as accurate as an over-the-counter pregnancy test.

“We're keeping our fingers crossed,” said Dwayne Biggs, curator of aquatic life at the Highland Park zoo, as Kobe played with a toy, rubbed against rocks and bellowed in the exhibit behind him on Friday.

Kobe, who mated with a polar bear named Koda several times during the spring and summer, has shown signs of pregnancy. She doesn't want anything to do with Koda, her appetite and weight have soared, and she's “denning,” or hunkering down in an area away from other bears.

Biggs said such signs often wind up being “false positives,” and traditional pregnancy detection methods such as progesterone monitoring and ultrasound exams are not as effective with polar bears as other animals.

That's where Elvis comes in.

The pup has been honing his skills in poop-based pregnancy sleuthing since January, training on more than 200 fecal samples. When Elvis smells the right pheromones, he sits down, looks up at his handler and barks, Biggs said.

“It's rewarding for him. He really seems to be having a grand time sniffing those things,” he said.

The training is being done in conjunction with Cincinnati Zoo's Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife. Polar bears are threatened, with declining numbers in the wild and just 45 in captivity across the United States, Biggs said.

Late last month, Elvis received two samples each from 17 female polar bears that mated in captivity this year, including a sample from Kobe.

Testing is expected to continue for another couple of weeks.

If Kobe, 11, is pregnant, Biggs expects her to deliver in the next month or so. The average newborn polar bear weighs about a pound and is a foot long. The public likely would not get a glimpse of the cub until spring.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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