Aug. 1, 2013 — -- Walk by Tasul the polar bear's habitat at the Oregon Zoo and you might find an unusual sight: a GoPro camera attached to her collar. She only wears the collar for an hour at a time, but vigilant zoo visitors might see Tasul channel her inner Spielberg while milling about her swimming pool.
It's far from a home video though. Tasul is actually helping her polar bear brethren in the wild by giving scientists clues at how the bears deal with climate change. One of the answers lies in the technology embedded in the collar: an accelerometer, similar to the one in your phone.
Anthony Pagano, a research wildlife biologist with the US Geological Survey (USGS), rigged Tasul's collar with an accelerometer that tracks Tasul's motion in three dimensions. "It records changes [in position] along three different axes: up and down, back and forth, and side to side," he told ABC News.
Pagano videotapes Tasul as the collar collects movement data. Whenever Tasul walks, eats, swims, and performs other actions, Pagano makes note of it. His goal is to link the behaviors that he observes with the data accumulated by the collar. Once he knows which accelerometer data correspond to which behaviors, he can apply his findings to polar bear data measured in the arctic wilderness.
Pagano was first introduced to the Tasul by his fellow USGS Wildlife Biologist Karyn Rode. Rode first heard about Tasul through a newspaper clipping handed to her by a collaborator at Washington State University. The article talked about two polar bears at the Oregon Zoo (Tasul and her male compatriot Conrad) that were well behaved enough to offer their paws to zookeepers to take blood samples.
While Pagano focuses on the muscular movements of the polar bears, Rode focuses on the animals' diet. She is also working with Tasul, measuring the concentrations of specific elements in her blood as a result of her high fat diet.
"Up to 70 percent of [a wild polar bear's] diet is blubber," said Rode. "But if less prey is available, they start to eat more of the muscle." She plans to set the data compiled from Tasul's blood samples as the wild polar bear standard. From there, she will compare blood samples collected from wild polar bears and see how the two types of animals' diets differ.
Both Pagano's and Rode's goal fall under the umbrella of the Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initative. Pagano can get a sense of how the animals are behaving, whether they are staying put because they don't want to expend the extra energy, or if they are foraging and eating more to get more energy. Rode can analyze blood samples for fats and potein in the animals' diet. Together, they paint a picture of how polar bears in the wold are modifying their behavior over the past several years, especially in light of climate change.
As for the GoPro camera, that was more a pet project of the zoo. Amy Cutting, an animal curator at the Oregon Zoo, said that it was one of the zoo's videographers that came up with the idea. "[The camera] is more for us to be able to see how Tasul views the world," she said. The video, which can be viewed above or at the Oregon Zoo YouTube channel, provides footage as if you were looking through the bear's eyes. It's like a Google Glass, but for a more furry mammal.
Cutting says that there a lot of potential misconceptions that could arise among zoo visitors when they see a collared polar bear. However, she emphasizes that Tasul has been well trained enough to willingly have zookeepers and researchers place the collar on her. "She can pop the collar off really easily," she said. "She got comfortable with the collar over time. Eventually, it seemed like she seemed to think, 'What's the big deal?'"