Animal Moments

May 12, 2007

Baby animals are always a big draw at any zoo. Our polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Barle (pronounced ďBear-laĒ) gave birth to Talini at the Detroit Zoo in November 2004. This photo shows Talini at 18 months, still interested in nursing. Mom appears to be a little overheated (it was a warm summer day) but is patiently allowing the ďbabyĒ to get her fill.

The mother polar bear eats hugely all summer and then seeks out or makes a den in the early fall, where she will spend the winter, giving birth and then caring for the cub (or cubs ó up to three) for several months before emerging. A newborn Polar bear is about the size of two fists, but on a diet of high-fat milk (about 30 percent fat during the first year and declining after that), the youngster grows fast and is ready to leave the den at about three months of age. (Note: At almost two-and-a-half years old, Talini now weighs about as much as her mother: some 450 pounds.)

At about two years of age, Talini was separated from Barle so that Mom might breed again, this time with Taliniís grandfather. As of this writing, we donít know yet whether Barle is pregnant, and we wonít know until the fall. Bears have delayed implantation, meaning that the development of the fetus may not start until several weeks or months after the breeding.

Barle is an excellent mother. There was no need to interfere with mom and cub at any point during the first year or so of Taliniís life. This is all the more surprising, considering that Barle was a rescue animal: She was one of eight polar bears appropriated in Puerto Rico by the US Fish and Wildlife Service from a traveling zoo that provided inadequate care for the animals. Barle, who was born in the wild, probably had good mothering herself before her captivity.

When Barle arrived in Detroit, she had never been in water deeper than a few inches. Polar bears are virtually marine mammals, and they spend a good deal of the time in the water, often just to play. Barle didnít take long to (re?) learn to swim, and within weeks, the muscles of her chest and shoulders developed visibly. Between the time that Talini and Barle came out of the den and when they were separated, the two seemed to do little but play play play, mostly in the water. Now, Taliniís companion is an older male named Adak. He has been a most devoted and attentive uncle.

Happy Motherís Day, Barle! Happy Motherís Day to my own dear mother, who, like Barle, gave all her offspring a great start in life.

Update on Januray 27, 2010

Barle has not had another cub despite denning up with all the comforts a bear could ask for two years in a row. She may be past cub-bearing age at over 20 years old.

Talini is five--big, beautiful, and bouncy. Her friend Adak died some time back, but she has been enjoying the extended visit of two 12-year-old Polar bear brothers from Minneapolis: Buzz and Neil. I have watched these three bears play together in the water without cease for up to three hours on a winter morning.