10/30/2012 4:08:02 PM

Getting Close to Bears

I have been working on a polar bear research project since 2008 to understand their physiological responses to longer, warmer summers with less ice. It has included incredible opportunities to study polar bears, to see the Arctic from a helicopter, and to travel far into the sea ice on an icebreaker. However, I just did not realize how close I would get to the bears here in Hudson Bay.

We arrived in Churchill on Saturday and after preparing for a week out on the tundra, we loaded a buggy and bounced our way through willow patches and around ponds to arrive at the lodge last night. After a hearty breakfast, we returned to the buggy and spent the day preparing for webcasts, videoconferences, and other outreach activities with PBI. The entire time, polar bears went about their business, just feet from the buggy. A pair of bears were the first arrival and began to investigate us. After determining the buggy was inedible and the humans inside were out of reach, they forgot about us and decided to wrestle. The wrestling subsided and the bears began to yawn, finally stretching out near a rock to sleep next to each other. Based on the interactions and the body size, I am guessing this was a mother and her one to two-year-old cub.

Shortly thereafter, a large male approached. The mother and cub spotted him from several hundred yards away, and nervously watched his approach. Once he became too close for comfort, they took off at a trot, glancing behind as they sought out a new napping site.

Observing these interactions at close range, and watching the bears slowly make their way through this habitat, sniffing and sorting past willows, grasses, ice, and rocks, is giving me a new perspective on their search for food. By this time of year, the bears have not been out on the sea ice hunting seals for months. Polar bears diverged from brown bears (also called grizzly bears) about 600,000 years ago, and many of the adaptations that make polar bears unique are centered on making a living out on the sea ice. For example, polar bears have larger canine teeth (for catching and killing slippery seals) but smaller molar teeth (because they do not need to chew as much) than brown bears, making it more difficult for them to efficiently chew vegetation. I'm looking forward to the arrival of the sea ice, so the bears can head out into the habitat in which they thrive.

Another benefit of this trip is spending time with experts in sea ice, climate, and education. It is critical for us to understand the Arctic climate and annual cycle of sea ice because these factors drive how polar bears adjust their physiology. And it is up to an educated society to make the best decisions for the future of our climate, and the future of polar bears. We have only been out on the tundra one day, but it has been a great experience already!

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