Scientists keep a close eye on endangered polar bears

Scientists keep a close eye on endangered polar bears

20 December 2010

On December 3, 2010, members of the comprehensive joint expedition involving the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution and the Northern Department of the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring celebrated the successful end of the three-month voyage by the Mikhail Somov scientific research icebreaker at Arkhangelsk seaport. The ship had covered almost 10,000 nautical miles, crossing all of Russia’s six Arctic seas: the White Sea, the Barents Sea, the Kara Sea, the Laptev Sea, the Eastern Siberian Sea and Chukchi Sea.


Zoologists from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution worked aboard the Mikhail Somov throughout its voyage, studying marine mammals, their habitats, populations, migration routes and ecology. Special attention was paid to the polar bear, white whale and walrus populations because of the changes in climate observed at high latitudes.


The area of old pack ice, where polar bears traditionally prefer to feed, is dwindling rapidly. Food chains among arctic animals are also changing. This makes research activity in the region particularly important.


Scientists used the ship’s helicopter to conduct aerial observations over coastal areas of these Arctic islands and ice-formation boundaries. They also monitored the behaviour of marine mammals wherever they dropped anchor. Zoologists interviewed meteorologists who spend the winter at polar stations, border guards, sailors and pilots working above the Arctic Circle.


Unfortunately, numerous facts cited by local residents provide grounds for serious concern about the future of many different mammal species. This primarily concerns those listed in the Russian Red Book of endangered species. Not only are their habitats diminishing, but polar bears and walruses also face being exterminated by poachers. Meteorological station officials say that poachers are also using helicopters to kill polar bears, walruses and white whales.


Every summer and autumn, hungry polar bears roam the Arctic coast, approaching areas inhabited by humans. Local residents say that as many as ten polar bears are often seen near polar explorers’ homes. In 2009, there were at least 15 polar bear sightings on Graham Bell Island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago. The animals live in abandoned buildings and feed on leftovers. Cases of cannibalism among polar bears have also been reported. Famished adult bears either attack young bear cubs or old and sick animals. Polar-bear remains have been found near meteorological stations and villages in summer. The chief of one polar station on Golomyanny Island in the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago said that in recent years, since the area covered by ice had reduced so much, the bears had taken up permanent residence at an abandoned military base. Polar bears move north in late autumn and early winter, that is, during the ice-formation period.


Scientists on board the helicopter inspected thousands of kilometres of the Russian coastline and Arctic islands, including Izvestia TSIK Island and the Nordenskjold archipelago in the Kara Sea, Pyotr and Faddei Islands in the Laptev Sea, the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago, Novosibirsk Islands and the Taimyr Peninsula. An aerial survey of the polar-bear population in the Wrangel Island coastal area was carried out in conjunction with the management of the Wrangel Island reserve. A total of 100 bears were counted.


Zoologists singled out several types of polar-bear behaviour. Animals living near areas of human habitation are not afraid of the noise of the helicopters, and they can only be scared away from helipads with difficulty. Bears that live in protected sanctuaries, including the Wrangel Island reserve, do get scared and flee whenever they hear a helicopter approach.


These are the first steps to study marine mammals in the Russian Arctic that have been taken in recent years. Joint cooperation between various agencies and organisations is essential in this vast, complex and remote region.


Research data under the White Whale and Polar Bear programmes will be processed and subsequently submitted to scientific journals for publication.