Arctic Vets

These polar bears really poop glitter — but it's all in the name of science

‘We can learn a lot from a polar bear's poo.’

These polar bears really poop glitter — but it's all in the name of science

Arctic Vets

1 month ago
2:54
Poop may be gross, but it can also be a rich source of health information. And for the staff at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, it’s the latter that has them feeding their polar bears glitter. 2:54

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Poop can be a lot of things. It's waste. It's fertilizer. It's a bummer to step in. But it can also be a rich source of health information. And for the staff at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, it's that last thing that has them feeding their polar bears glitter.

There's a lot we still don't know about polar bears, particularly when it comes to breeding and reaching reproductive maturity, and that sort of thing is tough to study in the wild. But at the conservancy, they have nine polar bears of different sexes and ages, giving the research team a chance to study them by doing things like analyzing their poop.

Animal care specialist Jackie Enberg pours red glitter into ground meat to feed to a polar bear as part of a research project. (Arctic Vets Productions Inc. / CBC)

"We can learn a lot from a polar bear's poop," says research conservation specialist C-Jae Breiter. "Like, is it ready to have a cub, is it feeling stressed, what kind of things it's been eating. So a lot of what we learn here is hopefully going to be applied by people who are working with them directly in the wild."

But that begs the question: how do you tell one bear's poop from another? The answer is glitter. 

Each bear is assigned a colour of (completely safe) glitter, which is then hidden inside a portion of ground meat. The bear eats its meat, the glitter passes through the bear's system undigested, and when it comes out the other end, you have colour-coded poop, ready for study. 

The team knows that this poop came from Aurora, because she was fed meat containing purple glitter. (Arctic Vets Productions Inc. / CBC)

"We have, right now, nine different polar bears, and they're all so different from each other," says Brieter. "And so it really gives you kind of a broad look at a species as a whole."

"We have this controlled environment that we can do different research projects on to learn more about them to help their wild counterparts," adds animal care specialist Heather Penner.

Also on episode 5 of Arctic Vets, Dr. Chris rushes to aid in the rescue and release of a great horned owl, and the team must remove an eye cyst from an Arctic fox.


Watch Arctic Vets, Fridays at 8:30 (9 NT) on CBC, or stream it on CBC Gem.

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