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Details: A Look Into Polar Bear Habitat at Saint Louis Zoo

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Polar Bear Point Site Plan (Photo/Saint Louis Zoo)

Polar Bear Point Site Plan (Photo/Saint Louis Zoo)

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Artist Rendering of Polar Bear Point Underwater View

Artist Rendering of Polar Bear Point Underwater View

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOX) - It will still be a couple of years before polar bears can dive, swim, and just lie around at the Saint Louis Zoo, but zoo officials released details Wednesday of the bears’ future home currently under construction.

St. Louis Zoo President and CEO, Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, gave zoo shareholders a sneak peek at the construction of Polar Bear Point. The $15 million exhibit nestled between the Bear Bluffs and the Penguin & Puffin Coast will be home to a male and female bear, who will head up a family of one to three cubs.

“It is critical that zoos protect polar bears, which are declining in the wild and are highly vulnerable,” Bonner said. “By working to not only conserve polar bears in the wild but to offer a wonderful habitat for breeding and protecting bears in our care, we can help save these iconic animals.”

Bonner said the new polar bear habitat will more than double the space of the old polar bear habitat, which had been home to Zoo polar bears from the 1920s until 2009.

Adding, “of the species people miss at the Saint Louis Zoo, polar bears are number one on the list.”

Polar Bear Point at the St. Louis Zoo will open in 2015.

Transitioning from Sea to Coastline to Land

With its natural substrate and saltwater pools, this new habitat will transition seamlessly from sea to coastline (or moraine) to land (tundra). It will offer the polar bears an opportunity to enjoy swimming, diving, rock climbing and digging in the sand.

Visitors will also enjoy McDonnell Polar Bear Point’s 22-foot viewing window where polar bears can come right up to the glass to greet them. The sea area will feature a 1,000-square-foot Arctic cave room that allows visitors to get up-close and personal with the bears by looking through a four-panel viewing wall that is eight-feet-tall and 21-feet wide. At one end of the room, visitors will be able to watch bears swim in a 13-foot deep pool, holding 50,000 gallons of saltwater.

“From the outdoors, visitors will be able to enjoy seeing the bears through a split view window that offers views of the bears swimming in the deep pool and playing in the shallow pool,” said Saint Louis Zoo Curator Mammals/Carnivores Steve Bircher, who adds that guests will also observe bears interacting with their keepers as keepers offer enrichment or go through training exercises with these remarkable animals.

Visitors can also purchase bear-themed items in a new gift shop as they enter or leave McDonnell Polar Bear Point.

New Systems To Save Water, Energy

The exhibit will include a state-of-the-art life support system that recirculates and treats exhibit water; it is a closed loop allowing the Zoo to save 2.3 million gallons of water each year.

“Throughout this exhibit, we are employing sustainable design and construction methods to increase the amount of recycled materials used with this project, including the concrete from the historic bear pits that was crushed on site and is being reused as sub-base and backfill,” said David F. McGuire, Saint Louis Zoo Vice President Architecture and Planning. “We are also installing an automated energy efficient system for heating, cooling and ventilation, in addition to life support systems that conserve water.”

Sea Ice Loss Threatens Polar Bears

The Zoo’s sustainable practices are aimed at reducing its carbon footprint to help stall the impact of climate change, which causes sea ice to melt. Sea ice is essential to polar bears for hunting seals on ice floes or near breath holes since polar bears are not fast enough swimmers to catch seals in open water. They stalk and ambush their prey on ice.

Over the last 20 years, scientists have documented a dramatic reduction in Arctic sea ice, due to rising temperatures. Recent modeling of future sea ice trends predicts dramatic reductions in sea ice coverage over the next 50 to 100 years and the potential loss of all polar bears near the end of this century.

The Saint Louis Zoo participates in the Species Survival Plan® for polar bears—a cooperative breeding program with a number of North American zoos working together to ensure the survival of the species. McDonnell Polar Bear Point will allow for potential breeding of polar bears.

The architect for McDonnell Polar Bear Point is PGAV Destinations; Alberici Constructors, Inc. is the construction manager. Rhodey Construction, Inc., is the general contractor for the project.

About Polar Bears

Natives of Arctic coastal areas of Greenland, Norway, Russia, Canada and the United States, the polar bear is among the largest of the carnivorous quadrupeds.

They are unique in their white coat and adaptation to an aquatic way of life.

Their coat varies from a pure white to a yellowish appearance.

Females can weigh up to 655 pounds. Males can grow up to 10 feet long and can weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds.

The coat has an outer layer of guard hair over a thick layer of under hair, making it water repellent.

Their feet are fur-covered on the bottom, allowing them to swim in arctic waters and walk on snow and ice without freezing.

Polar bears also have a two- to four-inch layer of fat under the skin to add to buoyancy and insulation from the cold.

NATURAL/ZOO DIET: In the wild, polar bears live mainly on sea mammals, such as ringed seals, bearded seals and walruses. They also eat carrion found on the shores of the Arctic waters. At the zoos, they are typically fed bear-mix, herring and mackerel.

INTERESTING FACTS: The skin of the polar bear is actually black and the individual hairs on its coat are clear and hollow. Light reflecting off of the clear shafts makes the coat appear white; the black skin underneath helps to absorb and retain heat.

When the polar bear stands with its head raised, it forms a straight line from the tip of its nose to its tail.

This streamlined shape, unlike any other bear, is an adaptation for swimming. In addition, they have webbed paws and a unique blood system that allows them to swim long distances in icy waters.

Some polar bears have been observed swimming more than 100 miles.

An adult male can consume up to 150 pounds of food in one sitting. In addition, their large stomach allows polar bears to go as many as five or six days between meals.

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