Published October 1, 2013
On a Tuesday morning in June, warm but overcast, school groups huddle around the Buffalo Zoo’s polar bear exhibit. The children come and go in great, chattering waves of 20 or 30, oohing and aahing and balancing on tiptoe to get a better view.
They are here to see Kali and Luna, the zoo’s fluffy white cubs.
One moment, the bears are romping around their habitat, splashing in a shallow pool and tackling colorful toys. Then, suddenly, Kali bolts to one end of the enclosure. He clenches his right paw in his mouth and starts to suck on it, making a humming noise that sounds like a series of fast-paced clicks.
“Is that polar bear sucking its thumb?” a boy with brown hair and glasses asks his chaperone.
That assessment isn’t too far off, says Jackie Heatwole, a UB master’s student in biological sciences.
For two months, Heatwole has been observing the cubs: Luna, a female born at the zoo, and Kali, a male who came to Buffalo in May after a hunter shot his mom in the Alaskan wilderness. Both are about 6 months old.
Heatwole has been tracking their behavior to better understand polar bear development, as well as how the two bears differ from one another, given their divergent histories.
The paw-sucking, for instance, is unique to Kali—Luna doesn’t do it. Heatwole thinks that Kali finds the action comforting; it’s a way to soothe himself when he’s feeling anxious. He has had a difficult life for a baby bear, she says.
“The short time he’s been in this world has been very tumultuous for him,” Heatwole says. “He lost his mother, then he was at one zoo, now he’s here.
“He was born in the wild and wasn’t initially raised by people,” she adds. “He seems to have a higher anxiety level when crowds are larger.”
When Heatwole watches the bears, she sees something completely different from the average observer. She knows Kali and Luna by their faces. She sees the patterns in their lives, the way that Luna is drawn to people and the way that Kali is guarded.
Though polar bears have long captured the imagination of the public, the scientific literature is surprisingly sparse when it comes to describing the animals’ day-to-day behavior, explains Charlotte Lindqvist, Heatwole’s adviser and an assistant professor of biological sciences.
When Heatwole and Lindqvist ran a search, they found only a handful of journal articles on polar bear behavior, and just one focused on cub development.
Lindqvist says the opportunity to study Luna and Kali is extremely unusual. To have a wild and zoo-born bear of the same age in the same place is a rare coincidence, so she was thrilled when a colleague forwarded her a message from zoo curator Jerry Aquilina asking if any local researchers had students interested in conducting observations.
“This is a very unique opportunity,” Lindqvist says. “It doesn’t happen very often.”
The project complements the zoo’s mission of promoting conservation and educating the public about the value of biodiversity.
With climate change melting Arctic sea ice, the polar bear’s favored habitat, Lindqvist has undertaken a number of studies in recent years to investigate the animal’s genetic profile and history. The goal: to learn how polar bears evolved and gain insight into what makes a polar bear a polar bear—knowledge that could enhance efforts to protect the species down the line.
Heatwole’s behavioral research is one piece of that broader research program. She spends about two hours every weekday watching Luna and Kali, devoting an hour to each bear.
With a notebook and stopwatch in hand, she runs through a checklist every 60 seconds, marking down what activities the bear she’s observing has completed during that time.
Is he biting a toy? Sucking his paw? Licking the dirt?
She also jots down any unusual behavior.
Watching Luna and Kali day after day, Heatwole has gotten to know their personalities and quirks.
“They’re just endless entertainment,” she says. “It’s so fun to watch them. Sometimes, Kali will be doing something and Luna will stalk him. She’ll come up behind him and jump on him.”
It’s Luna’s way of saying, ‘Hello, let’s play.’
Heatwole says it’s amazing how much the two bears have taught each other.
“Luna has really brought Kali out of his shell. Compared to when he first came, he’s a different animal,” Heatwole says. “And Luna was raised by humans, so she has to learn how to be a bear and socialize with bears, and Kali is helping her with that.”
When Kali arrived in Buffalo, he spent most of Heatwole’s observation period sucking on his paw and humming. Now, it happens much less frequently, she says.
One recent morning, Heatwole stood outside the polar bear exhibit taking notes on Kali while he and Luna played. The bears wrestled with floating toys in their swimming hole, then emerged back onto land, smudging their bright white coats with mud. They chased each other around.
As Heatwole kept watch, a school kid standing nearby made his own observation.
“They’re playing tag!” he shouted.
It’s wonderful to see, Heatwole said. Just a month ago, the two bears were total strangers. Now, they’re the best of friends.