My name is Evangeline Dooc. I am a junior at the University of Alaska Anchorage studying mathematics and natural science. Nearly a year ago, I wrote my first blog for Defenders of Wildlife, which focused on research with the United States Geological Survey to create a standard of health for polar bears by analyzing blood serum for electrolytes and liver enzymes/proteins. It was an incredible opportunity and I am extremely thankful to Todd Atwood from USGS, Karla Dutton from Defenders of Wildlife and the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program for everything they did to support me in my journey to becoming an accomplished researcher and scientist.
This spring, former Defenders of Wildlife employee, Courtney Breest, and Defenders’ Alaska Program Director, Nicole Whittington-Evans, approached me about doing research on emergency wildlife rescue of a polar bear in an oil spill. The prospect of returning to Defenders of Wildlife for another opportunity to advance polar bear research was exciting. The topic of study also sounded intriguing; I had to say yes!
I was happy to learn that no polar bears have been caught in an oil spill, but it is better to be prepared, since large oil extractions and the melting sea ice in the Arctic increase chances for oil spills to occur in polar bear habitat. Susanne Miller of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service was interested in making the protocol for oil spill response more efficient. The currently proposed method is to transport a polar bear to a wildlife facility and wash it off with Dawn soap. In addition to needing to remove the animals from the field, necessitating potentially long distances of travel, this approach also requires a lot of water and Dawn detergent.
While the Dawn approach has been effective and helped wildlife in many oil spills, we were not fully aware of other oil absorbing and removing options. We thought it was entirely possible that other, better methods may be available to clean polar bears awaiting to be discovered. The main issue with Dawn is that using it could potentially put polar bears at risk because cleaning with Dawn is unable to be done in the field, requiring risky transportation for this enormous predator. Another issue is that Dawn would strip heat-insulating oils from the polar bear’s hair, resulting in longer treatment and recovery times.
Originally, the study plan was to focus on using oleophilic absorbent pads (oil only pads) to clean off oil. These might be an option to more immediately and rapidly remove oil from wildlife nearest to shore. I investigated a variety of oleophilic pads, but I did not find any evidence supporting their use on wildlife after being tested. One reason for this may be that the pads that are in existence are made to absorb open, non-obstructed spills, and are not designed for a field-worker to use as a wipe on animal hair. Another alternative I researched- milkweed pads - may be more effective in absorbing oil and likely could be designed to be easily used for fur and wildlife rescue, but these alternative pads do not exist.
After not finding much research support for the use of currently existing oil-only pads on wildlife, a challenger arose: Magnetic Particle Technology. Magnetic Particle Technology is an approach developed in Australia to “quick clean” wildlife immersed in petroleum from an oil spill. It uses iron particles and electromagnetic fields to do the heavy-duty cleaning action. Here’s how it works: First, the iron particles bind to the crude oil. Then the magnets attract the iron with the oil, pulling out all the contamination in a few sweeps of a wand.
In Australia and California, tests of this technology show good results on foxes, birds and seals. Magnetic Particle Technology also has been studied to test feasibility, and the conclusion is that Magnetic Particle Technology can be used to remove oil from birds, while reducing cost and waste. This approach seems very promising and may allow for much quicker and less risky in-field removal of oil, compared to the standard Dawn detergent approach. Now, it is time to test and see if Magnetic Particle Technology works and is as effective on the thicker hair of polar bears.
I hope that we never have to use this technology to save a polar bear from an oil spill, but I can rest in the fact that we will be prepared for such an event should it ever happen. Until then, I hope that we continue to research and test new or emerging approaches to learn about oil sorbent and removing technologies, like Magnetic Particle Technology, so that we use the best tools for wildlife rescue. I am also grateful and proud that Defenders of Wildlife gave me another chance to better the future of polar bears and help protect this imperiled species.
Defenders of Wildlife sponsors one university level Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) student each year — Evangeline Dooc worked on with USGS on polar bear research in the summer of 2018 and continued her work on this project in 2019.