10/1/2012 12:12:53 PM
Working in Polar Bear Country
Welcome to Polar Bear Country! It's hard to believe I'm sitting here at the Churchill Northern Studies Center having the opportunity to study one of the largest living carnivores on Earth. My Ph.D. research on this unique animal focuses on their foraging behavior and diet composition. My goal is to understand what polar bears are feeding on and investigate potential shifts in prey type that may be occurring in the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation.
I have had the privilege to work with several amazing people during this trip to Churchill and I have learned so much not only about polar bears but also about conducting fieldwork in the Arctic. Working alongside polar bear biologist Dr. Nick Lunn is a fantastic opportunity to see a polar bear expert in his element. Together with our helicopter pilot John Talon and other scientists Richard Elliot (Environment Canada) and Alysa McCall (University of Alberta) we have flown hundreds of kilometers across the Hudson Bay coastline in search of single males, and even further inland through denning areas in Wapusk National Park in search of family groups (females with cubs of the year or yearlings).
The landscape is something like I've never seen before—an endless blend of flat tundra spotted with what seem like dozens upon dozens of lakes and ponds, followed by rolling fields of moss and lichen, and finally rocky shores along the coast where we discovered nearly entire skeletons of caribou and beluga whale that had for certain provided nourishment for some predator.
Nothing thus far has been more exhilarating and awe inspiring than when working hands on with a polar bear! The sheer size of the individuals (including young cubs of the year) is incredible!
Despite their size, bears in the fall are much thinner compared to the winter when they are out on the sea ice foraging for seals. The onshore fasting period (late July - November) means that bears spend very little time doing much at all and instead conserve energy needed to survive until the ice freezes up again. Our field season here in Churchill allows us to work closely with the bears to retrieve information such as sex, age, length, girth measurements and small biopsy samples used to determine what the bears in this area are eating. Since Western Hudson Bay is a region where researchers have spent decades studying polar bears, our work here will help us to understand if there have been any changes to diet and feeding behavior that may be influenced by environmental change.
It has certainly been an exhilarating time here in Churchill! My first trip this far North has left me with countless memories from my first views of the Aurora Borealis to many encounters with caribou, moose, Arctic fox, wolves, and the Arctic hare. As I sit at my desk writing after a long cold day of working with polar bears in the field, I have only thing on my mind: LET'S HEAD OUT THERE AGAIN!