Stretching out one of her fluffy, white polar bear paws, Luna reached at a small, wooden stick that had drifted away in a murky pool of water.
Young, wide-eyed children pressed themselves against the glass provided for observation, peering in closer as they watched one of the Buffalo Zoo’s stars at play.
Not far away, Kali, a larger male polar bear, coiled into himself, exhibiting anxious behavior as he lay on his stomach sucking one of his paws. Captivated observers looked on.
From what University at Buffalo graduate student Jacquelyn Heatwole has seen, the cubs’ behavior is not entirely unexpected.
Luna, a cub raised by humans, is vivacious and sassy; Kali, a cub born in the Alaskan wild and initially nurtured by his mother, is more introverted, though he has broken out of his shell since arriving at the zoo, Heatwole said.
Minutes before, the polar bear pair pounced at a blue plastic bowling pin and scurried around as those at the zoo looked on, cameras at the ready.
“He has settled in beautifully,” she said.
Heatwole’s observations are part of a project to study the behavioral development of the cubs. Given the cubs’ different backgrounds, she also takes note to see if any characteristics can be explained by the cubs’ early upbringing. Conclusions from Heatwole’s research are not yet available, but she has observed some marked differences in the cubs’ behavior.
Having studied Luna and Kali for three hours a day since May, Heatwole notices subtleties in the cubs’ behavior that could be missed by the untrained eye.
Though just a month apart in age, the bears are showing differences in appearance. Kali, who was recovered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after his mother was killed by a hunter, is larger than Luna and has shaggier guard hair. He also displays more dominant behavior, which Heatwole described as in line with male polar bears.
But after arriving at the zoo in May, Kali often exhibited anxious or nervous behavior by sucking his paw, which is the equivalent of a child sucking his thumb. Since he began interacting with Luna, however, Kali’s anxiety has toned down.
The idea of studying the cubs’ behavior originated with Buffalo Zoo officials. Heatwole’s observations are valuable for zookeepers who aren’t available to constantly keep tabs on Kali and Luna. Having Heatwole on hand to measure responses to temperature changes or the cubs’ reaction to crowds provides valuable information to consider when caring for the animals, zookeeper Caitlyn Bruce said.
“This is great to have somebody to dedicate hours at a time,” said Bruce, adding that having a hand-raised and an orphaned cub in one setting offers a unique opportunity.
The research can be valuable beyond the scope of Buffalo as well, as zoos, in general, can expect to take in more orphaned polar bear cubs due to changes in their environment. Polar bear mothers are having fewer babies and in some cases are dying of climate-related malnutrition, she said.
Heatwole hopes her research becomes part of a long-term project, although that depends in part on whether Kali will be able to stay at the zoo.
The zoo is trying to raise $14 million for its Arctic Edge exhibit, but is $2 million short with about a month left in the fundraising effort. If construction doesn’t remain on schedule, Kali would likely be relocated to another zoo. Luna would be temporarily relocated to another zoo during construction, but ultimately would return to Buffalo.
Literature on polar bear cub behavior is limited, said Heatwole’s adviser, Charlotte Lindqvist, who has studied the genetic evolution of polar bears.
“Anything that can come out of this can be very valuable for the community,” she said.