Results of the Franz Josef Land expedition

Results of the Franz Josef Land expedition

30 December 2010

In October and November 2010, the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences conducted a comprehensive expedition, under the Polar Bear programme, to Franz Josef Land archipelago in the Arctic. The expedition was financed by a Russian Geographical Society grant. The purpose was to study, preserve and restore the polar bear population in the Russian Arctic.


The polar bear population is currently threatened by the following three factors: seasonal changes in sea-ice status, the industrial development of the Arctic, the pollution and destruction of polar-bear habitats, in addition to the direct threat from poachers. One of the expedition's main tasks was to track polar bears using satellite collars on remote Arctic territory of the state-run Franz Josef Land Nature Reserve.


Scientists worked in bad weather conditions for almost two months, braving strong winds and temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius and lower. They captured and immobilised 12 male and female polar bears during that period. Three females were fitted with Russian-made Argos satellite collars, developed and manufactured by Es-Pas. The female bears were roaming the area with their recently born cubs. The bear cubs never left their mothers, but were seen actively attacking dogs.


It is standard practice among nations to capture female polar bears and to fit them with satellite collars because the shape of their heads and necks allows the collars to stay on for a long time. As the female bears mature, they stop growing, while males continue to grow and gain weight all their life. Their neck size also tends to increase.


The collars are still operational, enabling scientists to map polar bear movement. Such online data, received in November and December, makes it possible to track female polar bears in the Barents Sea population. Against the backdrop of the changing ice situation, scientists will be able to chart their main migration routes.


The bears were captured and immobilised during an ambush near a feeding place, as well as from off-road vehicles. Food traps were not used because they could have threatened the health of the female bears and their cubs.


Blood, fur, urine and droppings, taken from all 12 immobilised bears, will make it possible to conduct genetic and veterinary research. Biometric data was also collected on every specimen.


In all, zoologists located 40 polar bears during the expedition. After polling border-outpost personnel on polar bear migration routes in the past few years, scientists surmised that seasonal migration routes were located in the central flatland section of Alexandra Land island, which is surrounded by glaciers on both sides. Migration timing is determined by sea-ice formation periods in the waters around the island and in local straits. Bears migrate from the Franz Josef Land archipelago's north-eastern section to its south-western areas. This was confirmed by a preliminary assessment of Argos data regarding the location and movement of three tagged female bears and their cubs.


The expedition involved numerous specialists, including zoologists, ecologists-climatologists, marine-mammal experts, animal-immobilisation experts, specialists from the Arkhangelsk-based Institute of Ecological Problems of the North and the state-run Franz Josef Land Nature Reserve.