There is a cute new 29-year-old girl taking up residence at the Detroit Zoo. She also happens to be a member of a very ferocious family, the polar bear. Her name is Tundra, and she comes, not from the North Pole, but from Indianapolis, which is permanently closing its polar bear exhibit.
“Tundra arrived over the weekend and is acclimating very well to her new environment,” said Ron Kagan, executive director for the Detroit Zoological Society. “She is sweet and curious and rather sprightly for an elderly bear.”
Her new home is at the Arctic Ring of Life habitat, which opened in 2001 and is one of the largest polar bear habitats in North America. Over a decade later, the four-acre indoor and outdoor home is still state of the art.
The bears get a good amount of exercise in the 190,000-gallon saltwater tank, on the ice pack, fresh water pool, grassy tundra, or as they swim the 70-foot-long Frederick and Barbara Erb Polar Passage, were visitors can get a spectacular view of them swimming.
The facility also houses seals and arctic foxes.
“The Arctic Ring of Life is an incredible facility for this polar bear to spend the remainder of her golden years,” says Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). “She will receive the best possible care during her time here and enjoy the comforts of this expansive, naturalistic space.”
With the average lifespan of a polar bear being 15-18 years, Tundra is actually probably more of a granddame than cute coed. Most animals in captivity live longer because veterinarians provide nutrition and health care.
Among Tundra’s roommates will be two 11-year-old polar bears – Nuka, a male and Talini, a female. Tundra, unfortunately, takes the place of Bärle, who was rescued from a Puerto Rican circus. She gave birth to Talini in 2004 and died in 2012. Nuka was brought in as a potential mate for Talini.
Polar bears are wonderful to watch but they also the largest carnivore on the earth – poor news for the seals that make up most of their diet. They are 6-9 ft. tall and weigh 450 to 1,400 pounds. They may be huge but there are in trouble.
Zoos like the DZS are important for the continued survival of the polar bear given the threat posed by a warming climate. They spend most of their lives on sea ice, which they rely on to hunt and create maternal dens. Not only do they lose maternal dens when the sea ice melts, but the seals, which you’ll recall is their main food, live off of the sea ice’s plankton and micro-organisms. This causes a domino effect of the food chain.
The DZS collaborates with the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the village of Kaktovik, Alaska, in field research to conserve polar bears. The DZS also supports critical field research at Wrangel Island, in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Russia. Concurrent research in both countries is being done to understand the status of the entire population of polar bears and how the species is faring as a result of climate change and increasing human use of habitats.
One way or the other, whether by species or age like Tundra, polar bears are becoming a less common part of the natural world. The DZS is doing everything it can to make sure they are still here for all to see generations from now.
– Top picture: Tundra in snow. Photo by Carla Knapp