From a helicopter, it may be onerous to identify 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 coloration — the marginally yellowish hue of the bears’ fur set off in opposition to the white snow.
“Additionally, fairly often, you see the footprints earlier than you see the bear,” Dr. Aars mentioned. “And the bear is normally the place the footprints cease.”
Dr. Aars is one in an extended 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 area journeys into the icy wilderness to search out and research 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 conduct; with the ocean ice retreating rapidly, among the bears now must swim lengthy distances so as to discover locations to den. However thus far, the bears themselves nonetheless appear sturdy, Dr. Aars mentioned.
If that begins to alter, nevertheless, as researchers fear that it’s going to, these annual area journeys will assist uncover issues early.
Right here’s how scientists pull them off.
The journeys typically happen within the spring, when feminine bears are rising from their dens with new cubs and the ocean ice is strong sufficient to help what will be harmful analysis. To maximise the world of research — and the percentages of discovering bears — the scientists traverse the archipelago by helicopter. “And, in fact, you probably have a helicopter and land on the ice and it’s skinny, you threat having an accident with the helicopter,” Dr. Aars mentioned.
As soon as airborne, the staff, 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 intention from the air with a tranquilizer dart. In the event that they hit their mark, it sometimes takes only a few minutes earlier than the bear is flat on the ice.
Then the researchers land and get to work. They wrap a bit of material — a shawl or blanket works effectively, Dr. Aars mentioned — across the bear’s eyes to guard it from the solar’s fierce rays and arrange gear to observe the bear’s coronary heart price, blood oxygen ranges and physique temperature.
They take a wide range of bodily measurements, tallying the animal’s size, girth and the scale of its cranium. In addition they look at its enamel, which may present an excellent approximation of its age.
“Once you’ve performed that with a whole lot of bears, , you begin getting fairly good at it,” Dr. Aars mentioned. The feminine bears are additionally weighed, a fragile maneuver that requires hoisting them into the air on a stretcher hooked up to 2 spring scales. (The male bears are too heavy to weigh.)
Then they take blood, fur and fats samples, tucking the blood pattern right into a pocket so it doesn’t freeze. “You simply put it in your jacket, near your physique,” Dr. Aars mentioned. Again within the lab, these samples will assist the scientists reply every kind of questions concerning the animal’s life: What’s it consuming? (Generally a bear is roofed in blood when the researchers discover it, an indication that it has simply made a meal of a seal.) Does it have parasites? Has it been uncovered to a number of pollution? They’ll additionally extract DNA from these samples to be taught extra concerning the genetics of the native polar bear inhabitants and sketch out ursine household timber.
Among the feminine bears are given satellite tv for pc collars, which observe their location and exercise. A “saltwater change” on the collars prompts when the bears drop into the water, permitting the researchers to calculate the period of time the bears spend swimming.
Earlier than 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. However in addition they add a extra non permanent mark, portray a quantity on every bear’s again. The quantity, which can disappear when the bear sheds its fur, prevents the scientists from capturing the identical bear throughout the identical area season. “We don’t need to problem that bear twice,” Dr. Aars mentioned.
Your entire 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.
Generally the researchers look forward to the bear to come back to, simply to verify 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 just like the bear is saying ‘OK, I need to kill that man,’” he mentioned. “I feel it’s extra, like, seeing if it’s OK and doubtless having a little bit of a headache and interested by different issues.”
After which 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.