What Are They Doing?
Polar bears, Ursus maritimus, spend most of their time on the sea ice – where they travel, hunt, and sometimes even give birth. However, during the summer the sea ice retreats northward and leaves some polar bears on shore for several months. These bears may not be able hunt and may face warmer temperatures than they do on the ice. The research team investigated how the polar bears cope with these difficult conditions on shore, and attempted to determine if they possess adaptations similar to bears that hibernate in the winter.
A research team made up of scientists from the University of Wyoming, United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) used the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea and on-board helicopters to approach polar bears on the sea ice and collect measurements and samples to determine the overall physical condition of the animals. The research team recaptured bears that were originally tested in May 2009, to compare data from before and after the summer of 2009. Measurements included weight and length of the bear as well as overall appearance. In addition, the researchers measured body fat, muscle condition, and took blood samples.
Knowing how polar bears adjust when living on shore, and why they may not be able to adjust will provide important information to indigenous people, U.S. and international management agencies, conservation groups, and policy maker's for addressing the polar bear's needs in the future.
Where Are They?
The polar bear research team, as well as other marine biologists and oceanographers, lived and worked from the USCGC Polar Sea in the Beaufort Sea. The team traveled via helicopter to and from the ship to approach and conduct sampling on ice-bound populations of polar bears living on thick multiyear sea ice.
Merav Ben-David is an associate professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology and the Ecology program at the University of Wyoming. After receiving both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Tel-Aviv University in Israel, she received her PhD at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks in 1996. Dr. Merav Ben-David primarily studies carnivores and her research interest revolves around the interaction between animal behavioral ecology, population dynamics, and ecosystem function.
Henry "Hank" Harlow is a zoology and physiology professor at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Harlow’s research emphasis is on the physiological adaptations of animals living in stressful environments and the health of animals experiencing various states of hypothermia. These research interests have included studies on Komodo dragons in Indonesia, hibernating black bears in the near arctic and now, polar bears that may be expressing a form of “walking hibernation” during summer ice free months in the Arctic.
John Whiteman is a PhD student in ecology, zoology, and physiology at the University of Wyoming. He has a strong interest in how the environment and interactions between organisms influence the behavior and physiology of individuals, and ultimately, populations. In particular, he is interested in the fascinating adaptations animals have developed in response to the challenges of living in cold and snow. Mr. Whiteman is excited to participate in the PolarTREC program because scientific literacy, and an understanding of our environment, are fundamentals of education and allow all members of society to make informed decisions.