Before satellite collar technology was available, scientists relied on observational data to learn more about polar bears. Research methods today allow scientists to follow the bears from remote locations--even in the dead of winter, with 24 hours of darkness.

© © Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures

10/28/2013 4:41:59 PM

Following Polar Bears on the Sea Ice

By Dr. Andrew Derocher

Research has come a long way since the days of students spending endless hours huddled in tents, camps, and towers to gather observational data on polar bears.

I thought about this while sitting in the Churchill airport waiting for my flight south, reflecting on the week that had just passed working with Polar Bears International and the Tundra Connections® program. I had a fantastic time working with a dedicated team of professionals and volunteers, all focused on the goal of saving polar bears.

One of the themes of this week's program was the use of technology in research. During the broadcasts, we discussed how we use technology for our research and how it helps us with our work with polar bears.

The early study methods provided invaluable data on polar bear behavior and feeding habits; they also helped document polar bear interactions with other wildlife, including other polar bears. And while such studies are still important, we can now make use of many different types of technology to help make the research more efficient, while also providing opportunities to view the bears from a much different perspective.

Remote cameras can now do very similar work to those of yesteryear's students: they can record data 24 hours a day for weeks on end at many different locations simultaneously! Additionally, we can now gather information about polar bears that was never possible before, like how far they can travel in a year, where they go during the winter, where they create maternity dens, and even what kinds of food they've eaten over the past couple of months.

With the use of GPS tracking collars we've been able to gather incredible amounts of data showing the movement patterns of polar bear females, and to a lesser extent, males, from different subpopulations around the Arctic. We can combine this movement data with satellite observations of sea ice to begin to understand more about the type of ice habitat that bears are using. This allows us to begin to make associations between changing sea ice conditions and the effect this may have on polar bear movements.

We've discovered some incredible things about polar bear movement patterns while they are on the ice, such as the fact that a single female bear can travel more than 4,000 kilometres in a single season while out on the sea ice in Hudson Bay, and that they can swim hundreds of kilometers to get from ice back to land when they need to! If you're interested in seeing some of these amazing movements by bears in Hudson Bay, check out PBI's Bear Tracker where we'll be posting location updates every couple of days and you can follow your favorite polar bear as she makes her way out onto the ice again this fall.

For me, it's not only exciting to make use of technology in research right now, but it's exciting to imagine what might be possible in the future.

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