Polar Bear Researchers of Summer

John Whiteman with cub
John Whiteman with cub

It looks as if grad student John Whiteman (U Wyoming) is living the dream of countless polar bear admirers.

For Whiteman, it's all in a day's field work. The PhD student spent about six weeks on the northern shore of Alaska this spring capturing and collecting samples from polar bears along the Beaufort Sea cost, to study how environmental change may be impacting the species. Whitman is part of Hank Harlow's NSF-funded research aimed at understanding how polar bears are responding to the loss of arctic sea ice, an important hunting platform for the species.

Along with researchers from a long-term USGS study, Whiteman captured about 30 bears during his stay, locating them via low-flying helicopters, darting them from the air, and then landing to assess and sample the animals while they were unconscious. A subset of bears--those whose neck circumference was small enough to fit in the radio collar--were fitted with transmitters, both to capture data that allows scientists to understand the bears' movements as summer takes hold and the sea ice goes out from the shore, and also to aid in recapture this fall for repeat measurements. After a period of six months or so, the collars will release automatically if the bears aren't recaptured and manually freed from the transmitters.

Polar Bear Sow and Cub
Polar Bear Sow and Cub

In addition to the research, Whiteman posted a series of reports for San Francisco's Exploratorium museum, recipient of an NSF IPY outreach grant. Whiteman's collection of writings, Bears of Summer, explains the research. He offers detailed views of his work: it was news to us that the scientists capture breath samples in specially designed bags, and that they can learn much about the animals' general health and dietary habits from those packets of beary air.

Bear with Breath Bag
Bear with Breath Bag

There are wide-angle views too. Check the bird's-eye view of a seal kill in the post called "Getting By Without Food."

We wrote to Whiteman to inquire about his fall plans. He says he will return in August to the Beaufort Sea coast, and then board a Coast Guard ship in September to find bears that have followed the retreating sea ice north. Repeat measurements will provide information about how much or little the bears fed during the warm months, and their relative fitness compared with assessments made this spring. Internet access willing, Whiteman will continue his posts. "We are very excited about the intensive physiological data we are gathering, which is allowing us to answer new and important questions about how bears live over the summer," he writes.

Armchair researchers, mark your calendars for August--and bookmark the Exploratorium Ice Stories site.