Molecular science answering big questions
Genetic research important in polar bear conservation efforts
AKEY component of the Journey to Churchill exhibit at the Assiniboine Park Zoo is the “state-of-theart” Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre.
Molecular ecologist Stephen Petersen, the head of conservation and research for Assiniboine Park Zoo, runs field- and zoo-based programs from the centre’s labs and offices. He is assisted by numerous other researchers.
Recent research projects have focused on the ecology and genetics of Arctic mammals, such as polar bears and seals, as well as engaging citizen scientists to help monitor Arctic species. Petersen spoke to the
earlier this winter about his work and the role of the centre in wildlife conservation, education and other related issues. manage or conserve animals in the wild. One benefit to using DNA is that we don’t need to touch the animals because we can pick up hair or scat. An example of this is a new project that is underway to understand if the same female polar bears come back to the same dens whenever they have a cub.
We know they come back to the same denning area, but we want to know the specifics, and we can do that by visiting dens, picking up samples and then trying to match the DNA profiles of samples from different years. If there are matches in the DNA at the same den over multiple years, it would suggest female polar bears use the very same den year after year. If the same den is used time and time again, then we have to wonder what happens if that habitat changes.
In Manitoba, we are lucky because a lot of the polar bear denning areas are already protected in various ways, but we may learn things that would help other jurisdictions to protect their polar bear denning habitats.
Stephen Petersen is head of conservation and research at the zoo.