Success: Family Emerges from Den!

3/18/2011 2:09:46 PM

Success: Family Emerges from Den!

Close up of young cub

Success at last! This week as we visited one of our cameras, we were excited to see it facing straight towards a newly opened den. We quickly exchanged the video recording hard drives and returned home. The next day we watched the video of the mother polar bear leading her two small cubs out of the den for the very first time. Though we have yet to begin any analysis, this mother seems particularly active.

While most bears leave the den for only short periods, these bears appear to be outside the den for hours or more each day. Perhaps it is the relatively warm weather that brings them out so much. Being outside the den certainly brings out the restless kind of play that twin polar bear cubs can't seem to live without. We are thrilled that our efforts have paid off, and that this small family will add a great deal to our knowledge of polar bear behavior.

Problem-solving in the Arctic

Sole figure in arctic landscape

The work of documenting such events is not without challenges, and this week we have had no shortage of them. Almost 15 miles out on the sea ice, the shocks supporting one ski of our snow coach broke off, leaving the sled pitifully lopsided. We left it behind, along with a good deal of gear inside, feeling somewhat like we were leaving a wounded comrade on the battlefield.

Luckily our friends at Kuparuk were happy to help, and quickly welded the piece we brought them, all the while reminding us that metal behaves differently in the far north. We returned the next day, and spent some time installing the newly modified pieces. We must have looked funny working in our arctic gear in such a setting; two very overstuffed mechanics, underneath a bright yellow wagon, trying to work wrenches and bolts while wearing heavy mittens.

Electronics also have been a struggle. In temperatures of almost 30 below, our computers black out and refuse to turn on. Without the computer heater in the snow coach, Rusty had to strap his MacBook under his own four layers of clothes to warm it up—not exactly comfortable or warm for him. We also had trouble with the wiring of solar panels. A factory defect made one solar panel useless no matter what we did. Generally, we have learned that trouble-shooting in the Arctic requires a bit more creativity than in some places.

Playful Behavior

Cubs crawling on mom's backNotwithstanding a few electrical glitches and minor mechanical setbacks, we are very excited to have had success this week in capturing one of nature's more intimate moments. Aside from its value for polar bear research, the video footage is admittedly fun to watch. The tiny cubs, little fluff-balls of white, wrestle and play outside for a time each day, all the while never straying far from the safety of the den. We know, as does the mother bear, that this time is short, and that the shelter the den has provided may be the last time these cubs will ever see such refuge.

The polar bear is a true seafarer, adrift most of its life and rarely coming ashore. It weathers powerful gales and bitter cold, totally exposed to the elements. It is an expert in the navigation of capricious floes of pack ice and frigid waters. Its world is one we seldom visit, unknown to all but the most daring of explorers. For me it is hard to believe that the small cubs we see in the video will soon be getting their sea legs in such a place.

Photo credits: Top, ©Dr. Andrew Derocher, University of Alberta; Middle, ©BJ Kirschhoffer, Polar Bears International; Bottom, ©Robert Sabin.

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