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

Tom Fontaine
| Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

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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