Polar bear tracks lead to a snow den near Churchill, Manitoba

© Luana Sciullo

3/11/2013 12:33:22 PM

First Cubs of the Spring: An Exhilarating Experience

Luana Sciullo

After two days of flying the skies in search of polar bear tracks, we finally come across the great white bears on the move. The polar bear cubs are a lot smaller than I remember them though. That’s because my very first polar bear field season was back in the fall when cubs of the year are quite large and can’t exactly be cradled in your arms.

Female polar bears are just coming out of their maternity dens. Accompanying them are one or two cubs that weigh only around 20 to 30 pounds. Since the cubs feed on their mom’s fat-rich milk, they grow very quickly and by fall can weigh anywhere up to 130 pounds.

When the temperature finally rose a tad, our research team finally had the opportunity to head out searching for polar bear family groups, and also allowed the bears themselves to start their slow but steady trek towards the ice.

Our third day flying marked our encounter with the first family group of the spring season. As we flew inland over the denning area spotted with coniferous trees and shrubs, we kept our eyes peeled for fresh bear tracks. We followed tracks for only a few feet until we spotted a large female and her two small cubs. After landing in a clearing I was fully prepared to make a short hike to where the bears lay among the trees. What I naïvely did not anticipate was how soft (and deep) the snow actually was! I took a few steps away from the helicopter before sinking into about three feet of fluffy, white, untouched snow.

The short hike took longer than I anticipated and I stopped at times to pull myself out of waist-deep snow mounds or to crawl through trees and shrubs. The trek was worth every moment when I finally reached two small cubs lying innocently on their sleeping mom’s back. When we approached they seemed very curious but still hesitant about who (or what) we might be!

Our team collected some information on the cubs like girth, body length, and weight. We also placed small ear tags on each so they can be later identified when we encounter them again in the fall. I think it will be a great feeling to see these little ones in a few months marching along the snow-free tundra still alongside their mother, who they will remain with until they are about 2.5 years old.

As subadults they will finally depart from their family group and live a relatively solitary life as most polar bears do until they are ready to mate, and for females to raise cubs of their own. I hope to come across these two again soon – and although my data logs identify them by the numbers on their ear tags, this rare experience will forever be remembered as the first time I came face to face with polar bear cubs!

Two polar bear cubs rest on their mother. 
© Luana Sciullo

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