Why polar bear poop at the Winnipeg Zoo has a bit of a shine

All that glitters is gold, and at the Assiniboine Park Zoo's Journey to Churchill exhibit what glitters, is poop.

For the past two years polar bears living at the zoo have had a special ingredient added to their diet - glitter.

Several different colours of glitter are used to track fecal samples from the bears. The glitter is added to ground horse meat and then fed to the animals. Each bear is assigned its own color so that zoo keepers know which poop belongs to which bear.

Stephen Petersen

Dr. Stephen Petersen says the glitter is safe for the bears to eat. Adding glitter to an animal's food is a common way to identify fecal samples from animals in captivity. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"In the beginning it was easier because we didn't have as many bears so we didn't need as many colours," said Stephen Petersen, head of conservation and research at the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre.

Colours range from purple to red and gold. Eight out of the nine bears at the exhibit are fed the glitter, which is just regular non-toxic, craft glitter. The zoo keepers did some research beforehand to see what types of glitter were most visible and the safest to consume.

Zoo keepers collect samples from each bear to track what's going on in their bodies. The droppings are collected from the time they are first brought to the zoo until they reach sexual maturity.

"We have a really unique opportunity here

[at Assiniboine Park Zoo] because we are getting cubs that are orphaned when they are quite young to look at them as they grow and become mature bears," said Petersen.
Glitter in meat

The glitter is added to ground horse meat, and is fed to the bears along with fish and dry polar bear chow. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The samples gathered are used to track levels of stress hormones in the bears as they adjust to life at the zoo.

The gathering of fecal droppings is a much less invasive way of testing for those hormones than drawing blood samples.

The levels are then compared to other data on their behavior and what they've been exposed to.

"We want to know, are we doing it right?  Are there ways we can improve?" said Petersen.

"To really have a science based way of saying, well this really worked for the bears or, this really didn't," 

The samples collected are then frozen and eventually shipped to research facilities in Toronto, Guelph, Ont. and Cincinnati, Ohio.

Sample

Sample of the poop are gathered by zoo keepers and kept in a freezer until they can be shipped off for testing. Here, you can see red glitter in a sample from Star, who came to the conservation centre in the fall of 2014. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

This type of research is quite common for animals in captivity but most visitors don't get close enough to realize some animals' poo, like that of unicorns, contains sparkles. 

"The parents are the ones that seem a little more fascinated with it,"said Petersen.

While the bears themselves are what draws the crowds, Petersen says the research is often less noticeable.

"We're actually doing quite a bit of research behind the scenes...to learn more so that we can keep wild animals in the wild, where they are really most at home." 

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