Individual Effects of Seasonal Changes, Visitor Density, and Concurrent Bear Behavior on Stereotypical Behavior in Captive Polar Bears

Kelly, K. R., Harrison, M. L., Size, D. D., & MacDonald, S. E. (2015). Individual Effects of Seasonal Changes, Visitor Density, and Concurrent Bear Behavior on Stereotypical Behaviors in Captive Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus). Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 18(1), 17-31.


Kelly, Harrison, Size, and MacDonald examine the behavior of three polar bears, two females and one male, held at the Toronto Zoo to determine potential triggers of the stereotypical behaviors, or behaviors. The bears’ enclosure was 4,423m squared and consisted of three sections, a back field exhibit that features a waterfall and small pool, a large grassy field, and a rocky den. A front pool exhibit includes a large pool and various surrounding rock platforms. And the bears also have access to a maternity den at special times. About 40% of the enclosure  is surrounded by viewing areas and there is an under water viewing area so the bears are almost always visible to guests. All three polar bears were observed simultaneously during the daylight hours from September 11, 2009 to June 10, 2011.  The trained observers collected data on visitor numbers and they recorded the kind of behavior and its duration for each bear. The observations were conducted randomly throughout the year. They were looking for four behaviors in particular: stereotypic, normal active, inactive, and out of sight. The research discovered a low frequency in stereotypic behavior on the whole and that the type of stereotypic behavior varied by bear. They also examined seasonal changes, visitor density, and concurrent bear activity and discovered that each of the factors affected each of the bears differently. Two of the bears showed a more normal activity pattern during the winter. Low visitor density led to increased stereotypic behaviors for two of the bears, but not the third.  And two of the three bears behaved in more stereotypic ways when one other bear was inactive.

Main Points and Potential Applications:

  • In this case low visitor density caused more stereotypic behavior on two out of the three bears studied.
  • The winter season engendered more normal activity for the bears.
  • The bears behaved more stereotypically when one of the other bears was inactive.

Future Research

A larger sample size would help determine whether these results are generalizable to all polar bears in captivity.


Summary by Kyle Hull

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Unless otherwise noted, all content on this website is copyright © 2021 The Animals and Society Institute. Please visit to find out more about our reprint and use policies.

Share Us Online