Polar Bears International

What will the next generation of polar bear tracking technology look like? A recent workshop focused on smaller, lighter devices; flexible collars; improved release mechanisms and more. Photo copyright Dmytro Cherkasov.

7/8/2016 4:20:04 PM

Building Better Bear Tracking Devices

In mid-June, the 24th annual International Bear Association Conference was held in Anchorage, Alaska. This meeting saw attendance from bear professionals around the globe and representation for all eight species. Because the conference was held in Alaska, there was a special emphasis on polar bear conservation.

Many great talks and seminars were held all week, but one workshop in particular was especially exciting for polar bear scientists. Two members of the Polar Bears International team, Geoff York and Alysa McCall, took part in a Polar Bear Tracking Innovation Workshop hosted by WWF (see their article here).

The workshop brought together biologists, Inupiat hunters, technicians, collar makers, and the global deign company IDEO to brainstorm a better way to track to a polar bear. The workshop looked at priorities for new designs, tracking males, better drop-off devices, lighter equipment, more dependable data uploads, and more.

As many know, current technology to track polar bears on sea ice is incredible but does fall short in a couple of ways. For example, up until now it has been impossible to collar male polar bears due to their neck size relative to their head. Data on male movements would greatly inform polar bear scientists: what if males have different habitat needs than females?

Effectively tracking polar bears teaches us about their habitat needs, movement patterns, hunting practices, and responses to changing environment. If we could build a better bear collar (or even a better ear tag), we would be better prepared to implement the best conservation measures and ensure the protection of this animal. 

Summer sea ice has been declining for decades, setting new record lows in 2016. This continued trend poses a threat to polar bears as they rely on sea ice as a platform from which to hunt seals, rest, and breed, but also to other Arctic animals and even humans.

By monitoring these animals and their responses to sea ice, researchers and conservation groups can better understand the impact of climate change and gain new insight into the lives of polar bears; new technology could allow us to do this in a more comprehensive and less invasive way.

Designers and engineers from IDEO are approaching these challenges with fresh ideas and with access to the latest technology-often unknown to those in the wildlife community. Participants touched on the need for more reliable release mechanisms, smaller and lighter tracking devices, new collar materials that could be flexible, and simply more advanced and reliable tracking systems writ large. In the afternoon, participants used various materials like plasticine and pipe cleaners to make mock-ups of what new devices might look like and how they might fit on a polar bear. IDEO left Alaska with a list of prioritized needs from participants and a much better understanding of the challenges posed by working with an Arctic bear.

In this rapidly changing ecosystem, we must have the best possible information to inform responsible management, and so we look forward to working with these groups and continuing to design an improved collar or tag to help make sure polar bears are around for many generations to come. It will take some time, but better tracking technology is on its way-and we look forward to seeing what the team from IDEO proposes!

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