Bear Research in Pictures

Today, an American black bear (Ursus americanus) roamed the campus of the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD. The Maryland Natural Resources Police tranquilized and moved the bear back to the forest, but before that happened NIH started a Twitter account (@NIH_Bear) to simultaneously snark at NIH funding policy and slip some bear biology onto Twitter. Brilliant! (Well brilliant besides the mass species confusion. The Twitter avatar is a sun bear, @NIH_Bear tweets about salmon a lot, and that’s not really part of the American black bear diet in MD.)

@NIH_Bear spent an inordinate amount of time tweeting about being tranq’ed. As I was recently privy to a trip to the field for actual bear captures and workups for research, I thought I’d share a picture essay of what bear field research looks like (in other words, why they get tranq’ed besides nuisance relocations).

First things first, you need a baited trap. Inside the trap, when the bear pulls on a bag of food that triggers the trap door, locking the bear in the trap. Traps are checked in the morning and evening so that no bear is left in the trap too long, especially in hot summer temperatures. Second, we see a bear in a trap. (Note, pictures were collected at multiple workups.)

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Baited bear trap
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Bear in barrel trap

There are camera traps aimed at all of the physical traps.  Even if a bear is not in a trap, we check the camera trap to see if an animal found the trap but did not enter.  If there is a bear in the trap, the camera trap will tell us if it is a female with cubs.  The cubs are rarely trapped.  If cubs appear on the camera trap, then everyone immediately looks up into the trees to try to find where the cubs are hiding while their mother cannot protect them.

Following administration of the anesthesia, the bear is removed from the trap. Lubricating eye drops are administered to the eyes and a towel placed over the face so that the eyes do not dry out. Next, body size measurements are taken. These can be compared to the same individual if the individual is trapped in a future year, allowing researchers to understand growth. Finally, a few samples are taken, including a fur sample to be used in genetic analyses.

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Bear prepped for measurements.  A lubricating gel is put in the animals eyes and the face is covered to prevent eye irritation while blink reflexes are slowed.  The net will be used to hoist the bear to measure weight.
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Body condition and ectoparasites are assessed.  The researchers feel the chest, arms, and back to assess the animal’s musculature.  The “specks” on the chest are ticks with a full blood meal.
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Body size measurements

Research bears are then ear tagged for future mark-recapture efforts and some are outfitted with radio collars that record GPS points of their locations. These locations may be used to estimate home range size or identify dispersal corridors on the landscape.

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Bear fitted with ear tags and a GPS collar and ear tags.

Honestly, then people take pictures with these animals because they are beautiful and magnificent. Everyone on the crew recognizes how lucky they are to see these elusive animals in the wild. Finally, we wait with the animals as they wake from anesthesia to make sure they are not harmed. Then they are off (with a little more jewelry than before capture) for another peaceful day in the forest.

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Emily with a beautiful female black bear
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Bear coming out of anesthesia

Thanks to Bob Kipfer for last two photos.  All other photos by Emily Puckett.

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