A polar bear along the shores of Hudson Bay in September, looking oddly out of place in this setting.

© Luana Sciullo

9/9/2013 11:51:20 PM

Setting Foot onto the Tundra Once Again

By Luana Sciullo

As I step out of the helicopter and onto the soft, cushion-like moss and lichen beneath my feet, it feels like I haven't been back out here in a long while. But as I move away from the roaring helicopter blades and watch as it lifts off, nothing but wonderful memories of past field seasons come rushing back.

I've been given the opportunity to come out to Churchill, Manitoba, to once again be part of a special group of researchers studying an Arctic giant - the polar bear.  I'm working alongside Environment Canada researcher Dr. Nick Lunn on a study involving the Western Hudson Bay polar bears. Specifically, we're answering questions like what prey species the bears are eating, how their diet has potentially changed over the past several decades, and what this could mean for one of the most famous polar bear populations in the world.

Researchers have been studying polar bears in and around Churchill for several decades, and we've learned so much from the individuals we've studied. Our research methods have shifted considerably, from using lookout towers to study bear behavior in the early days to modern methods using helicopters for darting in order to retrieve important information regarding diet, genetics, body condition, and even the effects of contaminants on their survival. While in the field we take small samples of polar bear fat, hair, and skin, which are kept in a long-term dataset to better understand if the polar bears have been affected by changes to their environment, specifically climate change.  

From our helicopter in the sky we keep our eyes peeled for polar bears but we cannot help but notice all the other amazing wildlife that has adapted over time to make the arctic tundra their home.  Small herds of caribou can be found munching away on grasses and if you don't blink you may even be able to catch a glimpse of the arctic fox dashing out of the bushes as he hears you approach.  The skies are no exception to the beauty out here - with Canada geese and arctic terns flying in flocks overhead.  Today I even caught sight of two beautiful bald eagles soaring above us. I always feel fortunate to be a part of the atmosphere out here.

It's just the start of our fall field season and I know there will be many more tundra stories to share with you along the way.

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