Wildlife

Wildlife Wednesday: the monumental task of taking a polar bear to the vet

Plus: a mother orca’s burden, hope for sharks and rays, the link between salmon and wildflowers, and financially tracking the illegal wildlife trade

When a four-year-old polar bear developed a tremor just before Christmas, staff at his Quebec City Aquarium home had a big problem on their hands. (Photo: PxHere)
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When four-year-old Kinuk developed a tremor just before Christmas, staff at his Quebec City Aquarium home had a big problem on their hands — how to get the 450-kilo polar bear (and his 450-kilo cage) onto a truck to transport him 200 km to a veterinary facility in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que. The solution? A very large forklift.

The next problem was sedating the big bear just enough to give the veterinary team time to run a battery of tests and perform exploratory surgery. “They are like the most dangerous bears on Earth,” explained Dr. Noémie Summa, zoological medicine specialist and clinical instructor at the Université de Montréal facility in an interview with CBC News. “They look like a giant soft fur ball … [but] they are not soft at all.”

Two months later, Kinuk is feeling much better, though he still bears scars from the procedures — the coat of fur on his stomach and paws is just growing back from where he was shaved, so his black skin still shows through. 

Meanwhile, members of the veterinary team that got to transport and treat a polar bear will always have great stories to tell.  “It’s a big responsibility to make sure everything goes well. So you are very focused on this, but there is always a little bit of time when you’re just like, ‘wow, this is incredible,’” said Summa.

Mama’s boys

Female orcas willingly sacrifice their reproductive success in order to dedicate themselves to caring for their fully grown sons. (Photo: PxHere)
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When it comes to orcas, mothers really do love their sons. A study of killer whales off British Columbia, published in Current Biology, found that females willingly sacrifice their reproductive success in order to dedicate themselves to caring for their fully grown sons. Male orcas are extremely dependent on their mothers’ care, with past research finding a 14-fold-increase in the likelihood of an adult son’s death within a year if their mother dies. This care has a cost: every surviving son cuts the mother’s chances of giving birth in a given year by half. 

The researchers theorize that it is evolutionarily beneficial for the mother if their sons survive to reproduce, as the sons mate with females from different pods. The resulting offspring is raised by the mate’s unit, with the males returning to their own family pod and promptly having no further part in the raising of their child. This means less of a burden for the male’s mother and unit, as they don’t need to worry about yet another hungry mouth to feed.

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Where there’s a will there’s a ray

Since 1970, oceanic shark populations have dropped by 71 per cent, inducing species like great whites, hammerheads and tiger sharks. (Photo: Alexander Boucey/Unsplash)
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The ocean’s shark and ray populations have faced a shocking decline in the last 50 years due to overfishing, habitat loss, the climate crisis and other anthropogenic stressors. Species numbers have plummeted by as much as 71 per cent, threatening one-third of all sharks and rays with extinction. However, according to a new study from Simon Fraser University, improved fisheries management and conservation practices are working, curbing the decline of shark and ray populations in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean. 

The results of the study demonstrate how well-enforced governance paired with science-based fishing limits can help shark and ray species recover. And although recovery has remained challenging, the findings show that declines have been halted in three of eleven species, with another six currently rebuilding — including great whites, hammerheads and tiger sharks. Unfortunately, while shark populations have experienced an increase along the northwest Atlantic, the study says that there are still many dangers of overfishing in global waters.

Flower power

Nutrients from salmon carcasses can provide a substantial boost to flowers and plants in surrounding habitats. (Photo: PxHere)
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A study carried out by researchers at Simon Fraser University has found that nutrients from salmon carcasses can provide a substantial boost to flowers and plants in surrounding habitats. So much so that they even cause flowers to grow bigger and more plentiful.

Published in Royal Society Open Science, the study is the first to demonstrate a link between salmon and coastal plant growth. A nitrogen isotope found in some plants and animals is generally attributed to nutrients originating in salmon, and these findings give further support to the idea. To further test this, SFU scientists added pink salmon carcasses and drift seaweed rockweed into the estuary of a small river in Haíɫzaqv territory on B.C.’s central coast, an area which features a large meadow of grasses and wildflowers. Over the three year study period, they found that some species of wildflower grew larger leaves in areas where the carcasses were deposited, and in some years grew larger flowers or produced more seeds.

At a time when salmon populations in the region decline, this work gives an indication of how these declines may affect the ecosystem as a whole.

Follow the money

Key species being targeted include large predators such as cougars, lynx (pictured) and wolves. (Photo: Aconcagua, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
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Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, better known by its acronym Fintrac, is the financial intelligence unit best known for monitoring monetary transactions to identify and prevent illegal activities such as money laundering and the financing of terrorist organizations. Now they’ve announced they’re stepping up their fight against the illicit wildlife trade, zeroing in on large financial transactions that point to the trafficking of animals and plants. 

In Canada, bears are poached for their bile, claws and paws, which are lucrative in the traditional medicine market both here and overseas. Other animals are hunted illegally for their fur or sold as trophies — key species being targeted include large predators such as cougars, lynx and wolves, with sea life, including eels, narwhals and lobsters also at risk. On the flip side, there is demand in Canada for “exotic” reptiles, rhino horns, shark fins, endangered birds and orchids.

The increased focus on the illegal trade in wildlife is good news for human health — the circulation of animal parts increases the chances of disease transmission and can be a path for future pandemics. There is also concern that an unchecked illegal wildlife trade is a growing threat to the global environment and biodiversity, threatening endangered species and at-risk habitats.

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