How do researchers study polar bears on the sea ice? Or figure out how to find dens under the snow?
Field methods have come a long way from the early days, when scientists would camp in tents in the numbing cold, studying the bears through binoculars. With the advent of GPS collars and other new technology, biologists have made enormous strides—but many questions and challenges remain.
Thanks to a curious, tech-savvy staff and a range of creative partners, our team has earned a reputation for innovative research methods. These novel approaches not only benefit polar bears, but have implications for other wildlife species.
Following are some of our recent tech advances, including some still in the testing phase.
New Den-Detection Methods
Our team is researching whether synthetic aperture radar, attached to an aircraft, can be used to find polar bear dens hidden under the snow. Current den-detection technology misses more than half of known dens, putting moms and cubs at great risk. Being able to detect and map polar bear dens is especially crucial in areas where human activity is heavy and increasing, such as Alaska’s North Slope.
Early pilot tests of this technology conducted with polar bear dens in Alaska and artificial dens in Utah yielded promising results. We plan to further refine the use of this technology by testing it on known den sites in Svalbard.
Project partners include Brigham Young University, Artemis Inc., Norwegian Polar Institute, and Simon Fraser University.
A stable and uninterrupted denning process is essential to the survival of polar bear cubs. But current den-detection methods miss 55% of known dens, putting moms & cubs at risk—findings that underscore the need for better technology.
Bear-dar "Detect and Protect" Systems
As part of our ongoing efforts to help people and polar bears coexist, we are testing a range of different radar systems—both long, short, and mid-range—to see if they can detect approaching polar bears, triggering a warning and thus preventing needless injuries or deaths. Some of these systems are designed for use by communities while others are best for campsites.
This work is important because melting sea ice is causing more polar bears to come ashore in more places, and for longer periods, leading to an uptick in encounters with people.
Project partners include the Town of Churchill, SpotterGlobal, Hensoldt, Ohio State University, Brigham Young University, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Project funding includes RBC Tech for Nature and Utah’s Hogle Zoo.
"Burr on Fur" Tracking Devices
3M scientists are helping us find a better way to temporarily attach a small tracking device to a polar bear’s fur. The devices will provide a minimally invasive way to study movement patterns and other activities of polar bears in the wild, giving us insights into their needs, health, and status.They will also allow scientists to study two important age/sex groups—adult male polar bears and young polar bears—that can’t be tracked with traditional collars.
We are now testing four prototype devices on both wild and zoo bears, seeing if they can withstand sub-zero temperatures, snow, saltwater, and other challenges.
Project partners include 3M, Manitoba Conservation and Climate, University of Alberta, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and the following zoos: Assiniboine Park Zoo, Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, Como Park Zoo, Kansas City Zoo, Louisville Zoo, Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, Oregon Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, Toronto Zoo, and Utah’s Hogle Zoo. Project funding includes the Kansas City Zoo and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.
This innovative collaboration with 3M and Polar Bears International is moving out of the lab and into the Arctic. Learn more about these new tags and how they will help us better understand polar bears across their range.
“We’ve partnered with Polar Bears International on a number of projects and have always been impressed with their embrace of technology and creative problem-solving. A recent example is the Burr on Fur study, which could provide a real breakthrough in how we track wildlife.”
— Dr. Megan Owen, Corporate Director of Wildlife Conservation Science, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
Polar Bear Den Monitoring
Denning is the most vulnerable time in a polar bear’s life, with low survival rates even in the best of times. Better understanding the period when polar bear families emerge from their snow dens in spring and head to the sea ice to hunt seals will help managers set guidelines to avoid disturbing moms and cubs.
Through tech innovations including solar-powered cameras with batteries able to withstand extreme cold to simple Raspberry Pi computers and the use of AI to decode resulting footage and pinpoint bear activity, our trail cams provide a non-invasive way to study the bears during this sensitive time. Our team arrives in late winter to set up the cameras on snowy mountain slopes in Svalbard, just ahead of the emergence of moms and cubs.
Project partners include the Norwegian Polar Institute and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Project funders include the Berlin Zoo, Natural World Safaris, Ouwehands Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo, Seneca Park Zoo, Svalbards Miljøvernfond, and Tierpark Berlin.
Started in Alaska, and now ongoing in Svalbard, Norway, Polar Bears International's Maternal Den Study helps scientists gather data to understand polar bear denning and what happens when polar bear mothers and their young cubs emerge from their den.
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Photo: Kt Miller
These studies help scientists understand how the bears are faring, ringing alarm bells as necessary.