Polar bears and narwhals are both hard to study in their remote, icy habitats. Scientists rely on tracking technology to better understand both species.

© Dick and Val Beck

10/27/2017 5:18:23 PM

Tracking Polar Bears and Narwhals

By Ron Togunov

The gold standard for studying wildlife is non-invasive observation—hiding out of sight and watching undisturbed animal behavior in the wild. Unfortunately, because of the polar bear’s massive range, remote habitat, and the hazardous features of the sea ice environment, few of the most important questions about the bears can be answered using observation alone. Fortunately, remote tracking (i.e. satellite-linked collars and ear tags) allow scientists to see where the bears are going and help us answer some of the most interesting and important questions.

The success of an animal, and its population, ultimately comes down to energy in and energy out. The term energy balance refers to how much energy animals have for growth, movement, and reproduction. A healthy population needs females with enough energy to successfully reproduce. Understanding which factors affect foraging efficiency is critical to predicting how a population or species may respond to environmental variation. This is especially important in the context of a warming climate. Temperature increases in the Arctic have been disproportionately high due to feedback loops, a process called Arctic amplification.

My Ph.D. research at the University of British Columbia looks at the foraging ecology of two Arctic predators: polar bears and narwhals. These two species have immense economic, ecologic, and cultural significance, and have been impacted by reductions in sea ice and an increased industrial presence. Both are also facing significant threats from climate change, which has been extending the summer ice-free period, reducing sea ice volume and cover, and in turn enabling increased industrial activity.

For polar bears, reduced sea ice has led to increased fasting and energy expenditure, decreased body condition, and reduced abundance in some populations. Narwhals may face increased predation by killer whales, which have expanded their range northward as a result of reduced sea ice. Narwhals may also face increased competition for food resources from other whales’ range expansion. Also, increased noise from shipping traffic and fossil fuel surveying may hinder communication between individuals and reduce the efficiency of prey echolocation. However, the environmental conditions required for effective foraging remain poorly understood for both polar bears and narwhals. ­

As part of my research, I will use remote tracking data from collared bears and tagged narwhals to examine what environmental conditions they prefer to forage in. I will also study whether adverse environmental conditions affect their body condition. Next, this research will examine whether these conditions have shown decline with climate change. Finally, I will use climate and sea ice projections to identify what regions of the Arctic might be most affected, and if any regions may act as refuges where conditions improve.

This type of research, and many other studies are critical to understanding the implications of climate change for polar bears and other species. However, without remote tracking technology, these questions could not be tackled. Here, in Churchill, I hope to convey this message, because without the public engagement and support, scientists could not investigate these questions.

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