Wolves at the Door and More ...

6/11/2013 5:16:24 PM

Wolves at the Door and More ...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013 - 12:16

While polar bear field research is amazing, one of the really neat things is that it presents an opportunity to see a lot of other wildlife as well. Spring 2013 in Viscount Melville Sound was no different. Despite not finding a lot of polar bears, we did see a fairly good number of arctic fox tracks out on the sea ice. This was a bit surprising because the foxes are on the ice either scavenging seals killed by polar bears or preying on ringed seal pups themselves. Seeing so few seals made it a bit hard to figure out. Arctic fox are eruptive and when conditions are good (usually lots of lemming and voles), they can pump out up to 18 pups in a litter. Obviously the previous year was good to the foxes and we saw a fair number skipping about the ice.

Banks Island is world renowned for its abundance of muskox and we certainly saw lots of them. An estimate had over 70,000 muskox on the island at one time, but they’re vulnerable to crashes if rain-on-snow events occur and the numbers fluctuate widely.

We also saw many small groups of the endangered Peary caribou scattered about the various islands. This small, whitish subspecies has declined over 70% in recent decades, again due largely to icing events that result in starvation and large die-offs. The subspecies is at risk of extinction and climate change is a serious concern.

Beauty in the Arctic comes at so many levels. The vastness of the landscape, the ruggedness of sea ice, and the majesty of the wildlife all inspire. Nonetheless, there are times when the beauty is small and on a totally different scale. I think I could have been a lichenologist. These are an amazing life form and I’m always amazed that these hardy little organisms eke out a living in such tough conditions. Lichens are a symbiotic organism comprised of a fungus and an algae or cyanobacteria. These two species depend on each other (perhaps a subtle reminder that we need to take care of our planet as we’re a symbiot with it). These lichen can extract nutrients from the rocks they cling to and photosynthesize sunlight for energy.

This year the weather was tough on polar bear scientists. We had many weather days that kept us from fieldwork, but our cabin was snug and we had lots of food. Our freeze-dried grub contained an interesting assortment of exotic noodle and rice dishes. Some left a lot to be desired but we quickly sorted out our respective favourites.

When the weather did break, we managed some trips further north. The logistics of this study are truly incredible and getting fuel to these remote places takes a lot of careful planning. On this trip, we caught only two bears and one adult male was clearly having issues with this teeth. In all the bears I’ve caught, I’d never seen anything like this bear. Polar bears can suffer some rather nasty dental injuries when fighting with other bears for breeding rights, but this bear was different. It’s usually the canines that are smashed. This bear was well on in years (I’d estimate over 18 years) but it was his molar and premolars that were awry. Curiously, most of the molars on the right side were totally missing and the one snaggletooth left on the top looked in rather poor shape. I could speculate on the cause of the problem. Too many sweets is definitely not on the list, but it might be poor genes, developmental problems, or even pollutants that interrupted normal development. Polar bears in this area were among the most polluted in the world when the last circumpolar assessment was conducted.

All in all, every day on the ice is different. It was late when we made it back to the cabin and we’d settled in for a midnight meal when our helicopter pilot, Pat Foseca, thought he heard something outside. I wasn’t convinced and I thought it might be the wind in the stovepipe. I went to the door and peered out to see an Arctic wolf standing 30 feet off, seemingly as surprised to see me as I was to see her. Of course I’d left my longer lens in the helicopter, and I realized that there were two other wolves as well when I finally got the lens. The wolves were moving slowly away, clearly unconcerned by our intrusion into their world. I let out a quiet howl and all three stopped to check me out. I was a bit surprised to hear another wolf directly behind me howl back. The four of them joined up and we all watched as they wandered off in search of their dinner.

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