How to Catch a Polar Bear

From a helicopter, it may be arduous to spot a polar bear in opposition to the frozen tundra. So when the polar bear biologist Jon Aars heads out for his annual analysis journeys, he scans the panorama for flashes of motion or refined variations in colour — the marginally yellowish hue of the bears’ fur set off in opposition to the white snow.

“Also, very often, you see the footprints before you see the bear,” Dr. Aars mentioned. “And the bear is usually where the footprints stop.”

Dr. Aars is one in a lengthy line of polar bear researchers on the Norwegian Polar Institute, which has an outpost on Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago. Since 1987, the institute’s scientists have staged annual discipline journeys into the icy wilderness to discover and examine Svalbard’s polar bears.

Over the a long time, these analysis journeys have make clear the fundamental biology and ecology of the bears and, in recent times, helped scientists preserve tabs on how the animals are dealing with local weather change. The fast habitat adjustments are already affecting their habits; with the ocean ice retreating rapidly, among the bears now have to swim lengthy distances so as to discover locations to den. But to date, the bears themselves nonetheless appear strong, Dr. Aars mentioned.

If that begins to change, nevertheless, as researchers fear that it’s going to, these annual discipline journeys will assist uncover issues early.

Here’s how scientists pull them off.

The journeys usually happen within the spring, when feminine bears are rising from their dens with new cubs and the ocean ice is stable sufficient to help what might be harmful analysis. To maximize the realm of examine — and the chances of discovering bears — the scientists traverse the archipelago by helicopter. “And, of course, if you have a helicopter and land on the ice and it’s thin, you risk having an accident with the helicopter,” Dr. Aars mentioned.

Once airborne, the group, which generally consists of two biologists, a veterinarian, a helicopter pilot and a mechanic, begins scanning the panorama for bears. When the researchers spot one, they take purpose from the air with a tranquilizer dart. If they hit their mark, it sometimes takes simply a jiffy earlier than the bear is flat on the ice.

Then the researchers land and get to work. They wrap a piece of material — a scarf or blanket works effectively, Dr. Aars mentioned — across the bear’s eyes to defend it from the solar’s fierce rays and arrange tools to monitor the bear’s coronary heart price, blood oxygen ranges and physique temperature.

They take a number of bodily measurements, tallying the animal’s size, girth and the dimensions of its cranium. They additionally study its enamel, which might present a good approximation of its age.

“When you’ve done that with hundreds of bears, you know, you start getting quite good at it,” Dr. Aars mentioned. The feminine bears are additionally weighed, a delicate maneuver that requires hoisting them into the air on a stretcher hooked up to two spring scales. (The male bears are too heavy to weigh.)

Then they take blood, fur and fats samples, tucking the blood pattern into a pocket so it doesn’t freeze. “You just put it in your jacket, close to your body,” Dr. Aars mentioned. Back within the lab, these samples will assist the scientists reply all types of questions concerning the animal’s life: What is it consuming? (Sometimes a bear is roofed in blood when the researchers discover it, a signal that it has simply made a meal of a seal.) Does it have parasites? Has it been uncovered to a lot of pollution? They also can extract DNA from these samples to be taught extra concerning the genetics of the native polar bear inhabitants and sketch out ursine household bushes.

Some of the feminine bears are given satellite tv for pc collars, which monitor their location and exercise. A “saltwater switch” on the collars prompts when the bears drop into the water, permitting the researchers to calculate the period of time the bears spend swimming.

Before ending up, the researchers give the bears a number of figuring out marks, including an ear tag, implanting a microchip behind the ear and tattooing a quantity contained in the lip. But additionally they add a extra momentary mark, portray a quantity on every bear’s again. The quantity, which is able to disappear when the bear sheds its fur, prevents the scientists from capturing the identical bear throughout the identical discipline season. “We don’t want to hassle that bear twice,” Dr. Aars mentioned.

The whole course of takes about an hour for a single bear, longer for a feminine with cubs. When the researchers are completed, the veterinarian administers a drug to assist reverse the sedative.

Sometimes the researchers anticipate the bear to come to, simply to ensure that it’s safely up and strolling. They preserve their distance, however for Dr. Aars, the work has turn out to be routine and he doesn’t concern the bears as they awaken. “It’s not like the bear is saying ‘OK, I want to kill that guy,’” he mentioned. “I think it’s more, like, seeing if it’s OK and probably having a bit of a headache and thinking about other things.”

And then they’re again within the air, trying to find their subsequent bear.

Anna Filipova is a photojournalist based mostly within the Arctic specializing in scientific subjects who has lined the polar areas for 10 years.

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