Frostnip and Patience

3/26/2012 9:29:23 PM

Frostnip and Patience

Contributor:

When you're living in the arctic ecosystem, you're living in a place where polar bears have established themselves as the top predator. Being at the top means that bears up here essentially do whatever they want, which puts researchers at their mercy. Currently, my research partner, Jay, and I are getting a better appreciation for this as we play a bit of a waiting game with the bears we're studying. 

Den study team, waiting
Patience is required when waiting for polar bear families to emerge from their dens.

Our study is a den study, and we're trying to monitor some of the behavior that females and cubs display upon leaving their dens in the spring; a tricky business when the bears don't leave their dens. So far, our bears are taking their time emerging, and we're learning more patience with each passing day. The last thing we want, however, is for them to leave their dens before they're good and ready—and that's because the denning period is critical to the survival of the cubs. 

During the weeks that the cubs spend in the den, they drink milk that's packed full of fat and protein. In fact, polar bears have some of the richest milk in all of the animal world. Being able to take in large amounts of calories and fat each day allows the cubs to grow quickly and to put on the weight they need to survive in a harsh arctic environment. If human milk had the same kind of fat content, you'd be seeing some pretty pudgy babies. Once the female is ready, she'll lead the cubs out of the den, and out onto the sea ice to begin hunting lessons. These cubs may stay with their mom for up to two and half years.  

Young, curious cub
A polar bear cub newly emerged from the den and in the vast, white Arctic for the first time.

So, in the meantime, we need to think of ways to stay busy. Servicing our cameras and equipment is a fairly constant task that takes up a lot of our time, and that is especially true given the fact that -40 degree temperatures lead to some unique equipment challenges. In fact, -40 degree weather leads to some unique challenges in just about every part of your life. For example, the other day my eyes got a bit colder than I should have let them while we were riding on our snowmachines. Since that day, my eyeball twitches from time to time, and let me tell you, no twitch is more annoying than one on your eye. But the occasional frost-nip and problems that come from the cold are just part of the price we pay to have the extraordinary opportunity to work in an part of the world that hosts some of our more impressive wildlife.  

A frozen Wesley
The Arctic's extreme cold is a challenge for the research team.

Top and bottom photo copyright Wesley Larson; middle, copyright Dr. Andrew Derocher.

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