There are no ordinary days when you're a polar bear researcher. For over 35 years, Andy Derocher has studied polar bears as they raise cubs, hunt and find mates. With WWF’s support, his team monitors the polar bears of Western Hudson Bay, Canada. He shares with us a typical day on the ice.
Being a polar bear scientist
One of the great things about being a polar bear scientist is that you can only work on sunny days. The temperatures that slip down to -30 C are a bit less wonderful, but the scenery makes up for it.
Why sunny days? We can only find tracks when the sun is out: cloudy days with flat light make tracking impossible. Polar bears are spread out across vast areas of ice, so it’s common to be tracking a bear for over an hour before we catch up with the track-maker.
That’s why helicopters are another essential tool for our research. To get our work done we also need good ice conditions that provide a place to land and luck to ensure we don’t lose the bear tracks before we run out of helicopter fuel... It’s also helpful to have a stomach immune to airsickness. Twisting and turning over the tracks of a hunting bear can nauseate even the toughest researcher.
Catching a Polar bear
We have a pretty standard routine for catching a polar bear - load up the helicopter, find a bear (the hard part), tranquilize the bear with a dart (the easy part) and conduct our research before the bear awakens - as routine as handling one of the world’s largest carnivores can be!
Experience matters and making quick conservative decisions is key: some sea ice and some bears are best left alone. A polar bear capture has to be safe for the bear but also for the research crew. A good pilot makes it a lot easier and most love using their skills to catch polar bears.
Careful placement of the capture dart is a key part of safely capturing a bear. Fortunately, polar bears are incredibly robust but the key to success is to do our research as quickly and as humanely as possible. We are interrupting their lives and thus keeping the invasiveness to a minimum is important. Most bears burn off their drug induced torpor quickly and we have less than an hour to do our work. The drugs we use are incredibly safe and the bears wake up in a peaceful state given the calming influence of one of the components.
Once a bear is safe to approach, we spring into action. We collect our samples - usually blood, hair, milk, fat core, and a tiny tooth for age determination. After this, it’s a series of standard body measurements. We then attach ear tags and place a tattoo on the upper lip for long-term identification. We then attach an ear tag satellite radio tag. If it is a full grown female, we’ll attach a satellite collar.
Tracking Polar Bears
Tracking these animals gives us great insight into their lives for many months. We can discover where they go, what habitats they use, and when they migrate for shore. Understanding the impacts of climate change takes a diversity of approaches. The samples we bring back to the lab provide insights on genetics, pollution, diet, age, stress levels, pregnancy rates, feeding history, disease exposure, and more.
Field research on polar bears is an odd mix between moments of exhilaration and discovery coupled with long periods of waiting for weather. Over the years I’ve worked from cabins, tents, weather stations, research stations, and ice breakers. I’m much fonder of a place with reliable heat, power, and water. In rustic settings, one can spend the greater part of a day trying to keep a generator running, staying warm, and melting ice for water. Spending all one’s time trying to stay alive isn’t conducive to getting the answers we need to specific research questions.
Understanding how they successfully live in such a harsh environment was an early motivation for my research. It’s a sad statement that I’ve ended up spending far more of my career trying to understand how they’re affected by pollution and monitoring their fate in a rapidly changing Arctic.
"After 35 years studying polar bears, I’m still absolutely smitten by these amazing animals."
I’m often asked about the pressing needs for polar bear research. I now respond that we understand their ecology very well. We know enough to see the threats they face from climate change and pollution. Is our knowledge perfect? Far from it but we know vastly more about polar bears than most other Arctic species.
Polar bears have become the poster-species for climate change. It wasn’t by design but rather because we could easily measure the effects of warming on them. It’s a story of habitat loss that is growing increasingly familiar across the world. The challenge for polar bear conservation is that there is no easy solution to protecting their habitat.
Decisions we make far from where the bears live determine their fate. We understand the threats they face but it’s unclear if we’re willing to act in a timely manner to ensure their continued survival. Our best estimates predict polar bears will persist into the next century. Where they’ll be and how many there are will be determined by our decisions about greenhouse gas emissions over the coming years.