Setting up a camera that will hopefully capture a mother polar bear and her cub(s) when they leave the den.

© Wes Larson

3/25/2013 2:02:40 PM

Maternal Den Studies: Wait and Hope

The Boeing 737 is ascending through the light haze stretching from Arctic Ocean to the Brooks Range on the North Slope of Alaska. Looking out the airplane's window, I watch the all-white landscape slowly disappear as we gain in altitude. Soon all I see is the flat top of the white clouds below the wings. As each moment passes we get farther and farther away from the crazy life in the field and closer to home.

The past 2.5 weeks were filled with non-stop activity, planning, and work. Dr. Tom Smith, Wes Larson, and I started our field season with snowmobile maintenance, and followed that with FLIR missions to identify polar bear dens off the north coast. These after-dark missions were filled with long, cold nights staring into a camera looking for hotspots that might indicate a polar bear mother with cubs hidden in a snow den.

Next we prepared the camera systems for deployment into the field and ensured the batteries were charged and hard drives were working. Then we rode snowmobiles across the frozen Arctic Ocean to deploy four cameras on islands to the north—cameras that we hope are aimed at polar bear den sites.

Now the crazy part of this story: we fly south and wait! Wes, Tom, and I will wait with no guarantee our efforts will provide anything. The reason polar bear moms dig out and stay in a den is to be undetected during this very critical time of giving birth to and protecting their newborn cubs. Polar bears have evolved to burrow into the snow or peat to give birth and nurse their cubs without being disturbed, remaining in the den until the cubs have reached a weight and strength that allows them to travel and survive in the harsh conditions of the Arctic.

Even with all of the technology and historical data we have available to us, we have no guarantee we have found anything. That is, until the moment one of our cameras captures that telltale block of snow being forced skyward followed by a bear head poking out from the sea of white like a periscope from below.

The three of us have done everything in our power to ensure we will record the first emergence of a female and her young. All we can do now is wait and hope. Wes and Tom will return in early April to change the solid state drives inside the cameras and I will return in early May to retrieve all the gear. We will not know how we did until May when we bring the drives south and look through six to eight weeks of footage (in fast forward) for the moment we have all been waiting for, the emergence of a mother and cub.

Please keep your eye out for future blog posts updating you on how we did, and most importantly how the polar bear mothers of the Beaufort Sea are doing.

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