Joanna Sulich with a Maternal Den Cam

Photo: Esther Horvath

Joanna Sulich unloads a den cam used in our maternal den research.

Preparing for Maternal Den Field Work

By Joanna Sulich, Consulting Scientist



26 Feb 2024

Winter in the high Arctic is cold, windy, and dark. At my home here in Svalbard, Norway, at 78*N, the sun sets in late October and stays below the horizon for months. Until it returns, I must hopefully and trustingly believe the sun still exists. 

During the depth of winter, the stars and the moon light the northern sky, and my world peacefully shrinks. I find comfort in familiar cabin trips, the warmth of my woolen sweaters, the cherished closeness of loved ones, the sweetness of autumn-picked berry jams, or the nourishment of long-cooked soups.

Photo: Joanna Sulich

During this time, most of my thoughts stay near, but, as our polar bear Maternal Den Study work approaches, I often find a thin string of consideration and wonder running out into the night, towards the bears. Satellite collar transmitters fitted on polar bear females allow us to follow their tracks with astounding precision. Through our computer screens, we can see the meandering dots of their positions far up north, on the sea ice, which itself drifts, opens, and collides. 

As the sea ice moves, landscapes can change overnight — all under the darkness of the polar night. It's a seemingly impossible landscape to thrive in yet has been an energy-abundant home to generations of polar bears for hundreds of thousands of years.

A view of a fjord and mountains in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Photo: Geoff York / Polar Bears International

My thoughts also run out to the polar bear families in dens, where mothers nourish young cubs with their own body reserves and shelter them from the bone-chilling cold outside.

While grown polar bears are well adapted to an Arctic winter, I need piles (and piles!) of equipment to study polar bears safely: layers of clothes, a diversity of tools for communication and transport, and food, just to name a few.

A polar bear female is in many ways similar to my human self. She sees and hears quite like me. She, too, needs warmth (because, just like me, she is a warm-blooded animal, with a body temperature almost the same as mine). She, too, needs nourishment (the energy of a fat-based diet is essential to maintain her powerful body, which, when searching for food out on sea ice, is in use almost all the time). And, when pregnant with polar bear cubs, she needs the safety of a snowy shelter to give birth and nurse her children through the first months of their vulnerable life. 

Matching those two perspectives — my own personal, sensory experience of wintery Svalbard with lessons from the polar bear — fills me with wonder about the polar bears’ extraordinary adaptations, which allow them to survive (and thrive) in the frigid Arctic landscape.

Gear being prepped for our maternal den research in Svalbard

Photo: Geoff York / Polar Bears International

(Left) Christian Zoelly preps our maternal den cams for deployment. (Right) Gear being prepped for trips into the field to deploy the den cams.

Joanna Sulich is a consulting scientist with Polar Bears International. This year’s Maternal Den Study in Svalbard in partnership with the Norwegian Polar Institute and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance begins today. Watch more posts from Joanna as the field work progresses.