5/9/2012 12:44:46 PM
Satellite Collars & Curious Cubs
Fitting polar bears with GPS collars can provide us with a wealth of information about the movement patterns of these animals. The sea ice is an ever-changing landscape—and among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Understanding how bears move and adapt in this dynamic environment allows us to make better management and conservation decisions in an increasingly threatened arctic ecosystem.
Our collaring progress started out slow this year. There was no shortage of polar bear tracks, but the problem was that the tracks were sometimes weeks old! The lack of snow in the area meant that older tracks looked as fresh as new ones.
This changed rapidly with the onset of a late-season arctic blizzard about midway through the project. I had never witnessed a storm quite like this. The snow was falling heavily and the wind whipped up to 88km/hr. It kept up the intensity for an entire day and when it was over the snowdrifts were huge and you could be sure that any old polar bear tracks had been utterly erased. I asked our local guide, Ken, about similar storms. It turns out that this was a relatively mild storm by arctic standards. In a real bad one, winds can exceed 100km/hr and it can last for days. Ken also said that it isn’t uncommon for the locals to have to go around digging out there neighbor’s houses from roof-high snowdrifts. Although I have no desire to be caught in a weeklong blizzard, it was certainly an eye-opening experience to watch this brief, yet powerful, force of nature at work.
With the old tracks erased our luck changed overnight. On our next outing we managed to track three different family groups of polar bears. Two of the mothers had cubs of the year (COYs), which would have been born roughly four months prior. Just like people, polar bears come with their own unique personalities. Although none of the COYs were scared of us (they have no reason to fear people—they've never seen them before!), they did react differently to our presence. Some reacted uneasily trying to scare us off with chirps and cries while others were just plain curious as to what we were! We had one particularly curious little guy who wanted to lick and nibble on anything he could reach (I'm sure we smell quite strange to a polar bear). He would sniff the camera lens or have a quick chew on our snowpants while we went about fixing a collar on his sedated mother bear.
Interestingly, we collared a female bear with cubs who had been originally tagged when she was just a four-month-old cub herself … seven years ago. How amazing to see the contrast between her, now an adult, and the lolling cubs nestled at her side. Seven years from now, I hope that those cubs, will be grown up with cubs of their own and have the opportunity to live as she has, in an Arctic unspoiled by anthropogenic climate change.
With flight time and money running low, we managed to deploy the last of our 10 collars. The project was a success! The data we receive from these GPS collars will be handled by eager researchers and students who will use it to learn more about these majestic creatures and help to secure their future in a changing Arctic.
Top photo copyright Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures; middle, Dr. Andrew Derocher; bottom, Patrick Mislan.