Partner With The Canadian Polar Bear Habitat
We offer valuable research opportunities to scientists and researchers to study polar bears and climate change – opportunities that are not available anywhere else in the world.
In the past three years, we have partnered with institutions such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), University of Toronto, York University, University of Manitoba, Dalhousie University, University of Washington, and the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW).
Studying polar bears in the wild
Studying polar bears in the wild is extremely challenging. Polar bears are widely dispersed in a harsh, remote environment, so large-scale studies are dangerous, expensive, and they come with a huge carbon footprint.
Researchers are often unable to perform in-depth field studies, especially when polar bears are hunting on sea ice. Most information on health, condition, and diet of wild polar bears is based on sampling during a short annual field spring season. As a consequence, knowledge of polar bear biology and physiology is surprisingly limited.
Our climate is changing, and the effects are most drastic in the Arctic. In just the past three decades, Arctic sea ice has declined by 35 per cent (NASA, 2018). We know polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt for seals, and as the sea ice breaks up earlier each spring in the Hudson Bay, we are also seeing a decline in the body condition of polar bears in the same region (Stirling et al., 1999). The more we understand about wild polar bears, the better action we can take to save them.
But how can the scientific community predict and mitigate the effects of climate change on polar bears if we are still missing some basic information about the species?
Studying polar bears at the Canadian Polar Bear Habitat
Here, the bears live in a natural setting close to wild polar bear territory. Our bears determine when and where they explore, swim, eat, and sleep, but they are still considerably more accessible and predictable than wild bears, making our facility a perfect location for research. They enjoy daily training sessions, where they voluntarily participate in exercises that allow animal care staff to take measurements or collect non-invasive samples as needed. With information collected here, specialists can refine technology and create models vital for studying wild bears.
We also collect behavioural data on each bear every 10-15 minutes around the clock, every day of the week. As a result, we now have the largest polar bear behavioural data set in the world.
We are fiercely proud of what we have accomplished so far, and we know there is a lot more work to be done. Please see our donate page to contribute to polar bears’ long-term survival.
If you are interested in collaborating with us on a research project, please contact us.
RECENT RESEARCH PROJECTS
WHY DO POLAR BEARS EAT SEAWEED? Despite being carnivores, wild polar bears have been seen eating seaweed while on land during their summer fasting months. No one knows why. Seaweed is low in calories, but it has also been studied for its health benefits as an effective prebiotic in humans and in some animals. Researchers at Dalhousie University wondered if polar bears are ingesting it to promote their own health. For 28 days, our bears were offered a small amount of seaweed collected from the Hudson Bay coast. Samples were collected from the bears over the course of that time, and they are now being analyzed to see whether ingesting the seaweed improved their intestinal health, hormone regulation, or inflammatory levels.
Partner: Dalhousie University
WHY DO POLAR BEARS EAT SEAWEED?
Despite being carnivores, wild polar bears have been seen eating seaweed while on land during their summer fasting months. No one knows why.
Seaweed is low in calories, but it has also been studied for its health benefits as an effective prebiotic in humans and in some animals. Researchers at Dalhousie University wondered if polar bears are ingesting it to promote their own health.
For 28 days, our bears were offered a small amount of seaweed collected from the Hudson Bay coast. Samples were collected from the bears over the course of that time, and they are now being analyzed to see whether ingesting the seaweed improved their intestinal health, hormone regulation, or inflammatory levels.
HOW DO WE LOCATE POLAR BEARS ON SNOW AND ICE?
Partner: The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Alaska Fisheries Science Center
The NOAA conducts regular aerial studies in the Arctic, where they survey and gather data about wildlife that inhabits that environment.
Using cameras and a specialized computer program, they are able to distinguish animals from other objects in survey areas, then extrapolate that information to generate estimates of population numbers and densities. These numbers help understand population trends, and they steer conservation and management efforts.
However, their cameras may not reliably detect polar bears in all conditions.
In 2019, researchers with the NOAA visited the Habitat to test out their new technology: thermal, colour and ultraviolet imagery. They spent a week on campus and gathered thousands of images using a drone. They are currently processing those images to see if ultraviolet images were able to capture more than traditional thermal imaging, and whether the bears’ activities had any impact on how they were detected.
HOW CAN WE BETTER TRACK ALL BEARS?
Partnered with WWF
Remote tracking of animals helps scientists understand their movements and population numbers.
As the Arctic climate changes and sea ice diminishes, researchers want to know if those movements and populations are changing.
Currently, polar bears are most often tracked using neck collars, fitted using a mark-recapture method, or using quadrant estimates. Collars do an incredible job at gathering information about females, but the drawback is that they can’t be used on males; males’ necks are wider than their heads, so collars would simply slide off.
In an attempt to gather broader data, including the movement of male bears, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is teaming up with US Fish and Wildlife Service and research engineers, IDEO, to create a tracking device that will be tucked into a bear’s ear.
To ensure a perfect fit, bears in the study will be asked to present their ears on a regular basis for measurement, and that information will be sent to IDEO for analysis.
The animal care staff at the Habitat created the training program for other facilities to be able to work with their bears to collect this information in sessions that are voluntary and stress-free for bears.