Meet Nora, one of the cuddliest research assistants to study climate change.

Like most 2-year-olds, Nora is curious, playful, and a little mischievous.

Unlike most 2-year-olds, she tips the scales at several hundred pounds.

That's because Nora is a polar bear at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.


Nora in the winter habitat at the Oregon Zoo. Photo by Michael Durham/Oregon Zoo.

This month, Nora hits the road for her new home at Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City while the Oregon Zoo undergoes renovations. But during her time in Portland, she was able to serve as one of the the U.S. Geological Survey's youngest (and furriest) research assistants, helping scientists study the effects of climate change.

It seems so far removed: Desperate, hungry polar bears clinging to ice floes, ravaged by our changing planet. But it's happening right now.

Wild polar bears live in a unique and harsh environment and consume as many calories as they can when conditions allow and food is readily available. However,  there is a long period of time when the ice floes melt and polar bears are forced ashore, away from their primary food sources.

"They literally are starving, not eating anything for that four- or five-month period," says Amy Cutting, animal curator of the North America and Marine Life Exhibit at the Oregon Zoo. "The females are raising young and putting huge amounts of calories into milk they're producing while not eating. And we know they're at the limit of what they can do."

Polar bears are pushing it to metabolic extremes to survive the annual ice-free period. But what will happen as climate change extends the ice-free period even longer?

Photo by Andreas Weith/Wikimedia Commons.

Thankfully, Nora and researchers with the USGS are on the case, working to answer the question: What does it physically cost for a bear to swim from point A to point B?

To answer that question, the zoo built Nora a small pool adjacent to her tank with private donations.

All GIFs via Oregon Zoo

There, a flume of water acts as an infinity pool, allowing Nora (lured by yummy fish) to swim in place for a period of time.

While in the pool, researchers measured her oxygen output and other metabolic activity.

The talented keepers also taught Nora how to just relax in the small pool, so the research team could measure her numbers at rest.

It's not a complete set of data; the team will want to explore bears of different sexes, ages, and sizes. However, Nora's swims are one way for the USGS  to calibrate and improve the technology and get closer to cracking the case.

"It sure is exciting to have, for the first time ever, some quantification of the caloric cost of swimming for a polar bear," Cutting says.

While Nora's research is unusual, she is the latest in a series of polar bear research assistants at the Oregon Zoo.

Tasul, the Oregon Zoo's previous polar bear, who passed away last year at nearly 32, was trained to wear a research collar that measured her movement and sleep (almost like a polar bear Fitbit) as part of another USGS research project. And in an early version of Nora's experiment, Tasul  learned how to walk on a giant treadmill, The Horse Gym 3000. Since she was a geriatric bear (one of the oldest in the world at the time of her death) the keepers didn't push her too hard with training, but to be sure, her effort and training lead the way for projects like Nora's.

Nora is done with her research for the time being, but the Oregon Zoo will continue this work for years to come.

Nora may be off to Utah, but her flume and research area at the Oregon Zoo will remain as one of the new exhibit's primary functions will be conservation science.

"We're not done figuring out more about polar bears, using the flume," Cutting says. "And we know that there will be new requests that the biologists have that we might be able to facilitate."

Since the polar bears are doing their part, what about you?

It's not too late to act against climate change. Recycling or composting alone won't stem the tide. It's time for individuals to reconsider the products and foods they buy and how they're packaged. "We just need to buy less and consume less and travel less, and tread more softly on the earth," Cutting says.

But she admits our individual efforts alone may not be enough to get us there.

"I think a big part of it is bringing it into that public sphere and being willing to fight and being willing to say 'This is about the future of my kids and the future of my kids' kids.' It's not just an individualized thing anymore. ... We have to push for action, or we're gonna be complicit in one of the largest environmental disasters of the human era."

So reduce, reuse, recycle, but also reconsider your habits, support research projects like Nora's, and resist. Because if we want to save the habitats and animals that make this planet so special, it's going to take all of us. And if a two-year-old can do it, you can too.

Nora in the winter habitat at the Oregon Zoo. Photo by Michael Durham/Oregon Zoo.

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