9/12/2013 8:48:06 PM
The First Family Group of the Season
Polar bear research always requires starting the day off bright and early. It also usually means you spend much of your time flying through the skies searching for polar bears. This time was just a little bit different. It seemed as if we were encountering large male polar bears every which way we turned!
This wasn't too surprising for us, though, as adult male bears spend most of their time onshore resting by the coast. While they wait for the sea ice to return, they really don't do much at all. This allows them to conserve energy as they wait out those last few months before the bay freezes and they can head back onto the ice to hunt seals.
The Hudson Bay ice freeze-up begins in late November along more northerly coastlines first (like around Cape Churchill); as freeze-up approaches, polar bear bears begin to migrate in that direction so they can head back out onto their hunting platform as soon as possible. While onshore, adult male polar bears are not mating, searching for food, or showing aggression towards other males - in fact they tend to lie around, resting just a few feet away from one another. This makes searching for bears in the area really fun.
Despite the excitement we feel when working with enormous adult male bears, there's no feeling like spotting that first family group of the season. We were flying in our usual coastal area when we spotted a mom and her two cubs of the year.
Although the mother was a full-grown adult female, it was evident that much of her energy and resources were being put towards producing high fat milk for her two quickly growing cubs. Typically, single females put on a large deposit of body fat. They need the fat to withstand about eight months of fasting onshore, during which time they will den and give birth to their cubs.
Females that have already given birth have an enormous responsibility; they must protect and feed their cubs for up to two years. Needless to say we were beyond excited to get the opportunity to find this family group and, along with collecting several samples from each, we fitted the adult female with a satellite radio collar. The collar will transmit her location and give us insight into her movement patterns both onshore and on the sea ice over the next two years. It will definitely be a wonderful feeling to watch her movements as she embarks on her journey with her two young cubs after the bay freezes. I hope to spot them again next fall!