A new hope
The good news is that the knowledge that she was truly pregnant is immensely important in furthering our understanding of these bears. After Billie Jean’s pyometra scare, we weren’t sure if her uterus was damaged or if she was still fertile. Confirming her pregnancy via ultrasound was a big success, not only because we were able to rebuild her trust, but also because we were able to confirm that she is still fertile.
With the generous support of a donor, we are continuing our research to define a change in hormones that will allow us to say for sure that pregnancy had occurred. We have been collecting fecal samples almost every day from Billie Jean since 2015 and sending them to Dr. Natalia Prado-Oviedo at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s endocrine lab for hormone analysis. Together, we are working toward creating the most complete endocrine profile possible, thus allowing us to accurately confirm pregnancy.
In order to create that profile, we have amassed a great deal of data. In 2017, Billie Jean did not breed with a mate and, therefore, had no chance of becoming pregnant. So, that year serves as our hormonal “baseline.”
In 2018, Billie Jean had quite an extensive breeding season with our current young male, Quito. That year, we never saw fetal development on the ultrasound and she never gave birth, so we consider Billie Jean to have experienced a pseudopregnancy. That is, her body and behavior went through the same motions as if she were pregnant, even though she never conceived a cub.
In 2019, Billie Jean bred with Quito once again. This time, thanks to ultrasound images, we know that she conceived two cubs. Even though the fetuses appear to have been reabsorbed, we are hoping to see hormonal changes that we can compare to her 2017 and 2018 profiles.
We are in the unique position of having more than four years of comprehensive behavior data, hormone analysis and ultrasound images from periods that we know to be “no pregnancy,” “pseudopregnancy” and “true pregnancy.” With this data, we have a phenomenal opportunity to answer some long-standing questions regarding pregnancy detection in this species.
Thankfully, we are not alone in this effort. We are fortunate to have three zoos that are also accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums collecting fecal samples from their female Andean bears and sending them to us for inclusion in this project.
Even though Billie Jean did not give birth in 2019, we now have a renewed sense of hope in the possibility that she could become pregnant in the future. She and Quito continue to have a breeding recommendation, so hopefully the data we learn from our research will enable us and other facilities to better understand what circumstances are needed to result in successful conception, implantation and birth.