WWF’s polar bear coordinator, Geoff York, keeps up his field knowledge with trips out onto the ice to check on the condition of the bears. This year, he is keeping a daily blog of his experiences over two weeks. Keep visiting this blog for regular updates and live the life of a polar bear biologist.
By Geoff York
First day out searching for polar bears on the sea ice and it feels like something I have done all my life. Odd that flying in a helicopter at 90 metres above the frozen ocean would seem normal, but that’s part of being a polar bear biologist. I am out with George Durner, the lead biologist for USGS polar bear research and a long time colleague.
Within sight of Kaktovik, we luck into a sow with two new cubs and begin our capture routine. Once the mother bear is safely positioned and darted, we carefully walk in and sedate the cubs by hand. Now the work really begins as we run through a series of measures and sample collection for each bear. Every bear captured is marked with a permanent ID number as both a lip tattoo and a small numbered ear tag. These marks allow researchers to follow individual animals throughout their lives and across jurisdictions (between Canada and the US, or the US and Russia for example). We are on the ground for about an hour and a half. The mom is in great shape as are both of the cubs with the male weighing in at a hefty 15 kg, 3 kg heavier than his sister.
After such a great start to the day, our expectations are high as we depart the family group and continue on our search. Unfortunately, those would be the only bears we would see despite a full day of flying and many miles of tracking. The snow has hardened and the conditions are just not good for following tracks as new tracks and old tracks look nearly identical from the air. While the blue skies and sunny days are welcome, we could use some snow or wind to reset the surface and aid our search efforts.
Despite the lack of polar bear sightings, we did see some interesting Arctic ecology. About 16 km northeast of Kaktovik, we hit of some tracks that looked interesting. We quickly realized they were not polar bear however, but wolverine tracks. We abandoned them and continued on only to cut them a second time, but this time they were not alone. The wolverine was following, or more likely chasing, a caribou far out on the sea ice, something none of us had ever encountered. We decided to give these a look as the outcome was increasingly inevitable the further offshore they went. As expected, the tracks converged in an area of intense activity. All that was left on the surface was a scavenging Arctic fox, some lightly stained snow, and a large patch of Caribou hair scattered over a 3 m radius- nothing else remained. Resources in the Arctic are scarce and generally used efficiently by predators and scavengers alike. This kill site was likely less than a week old.
WWF’s polar bear coordinator, Geoff York, keeps up his field knowledge with trips out onto the ice to check on the condition of the bears. This year, he is keeping a daily blog of his experiences over two weeks. Come back for regular updates, photos, and maybe some video too, and live the life of a polar bear biologist.