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ScienceI am a polar bear biologist, AMA!

Nov 3rd 2017 by geoffsyork • 10 Questions • 903 Points

I am the Senior Director of Conservation at Polar Bears International, the world's only non-profit focused solely on protecting wild polar bears. I am a member of the Polar Bear Specialist Group, the U.S. Polar Bear Recovery Team, and chair the Human-Polar Bear Conflict Working Group. AMA about polar bears, conservation, impacts of climate change on the Arctic, or what we need to accomplish at COP23.

Proof: https://imgur.com/a/jWFGX

Join us for Polar Bear Week next week: https://polarbearsinternational.org/get-involved/polar-bear-week/

Watch live polar bears here: https://explore.org/livecams/polar-bears/polar-bear-cam

Thanks for all the great questions today! We are signing off now so no new questions here, but feel free to write in through Tundra Connections and via our Facebook and web page at Polar Bears International!

Signing off

Q:

Have you ever considered changing your title to "Polar Bearologist"?

A:

I ike that! Sadly, due to the dramatic changes many of us have seen over our careers- changes in the last 30 years- we have wondered if we will all become polar bear historians. Sure hope not!


Q:

Well this makes me sad. :(

A:

It's only sad if we don't collectively take actions to stop the warming and help stabilize sea ice (and temperatures where we live too!). So turn that sadness into action- talk to your family and friends, talk to your elected officials, vote if you can, and help transition our world to cleaner sources of energy.


Q:

Hello from Svalbard.

We have had bears coming near to town several times the past few months, which has created some safety issues.

Do you think there is anything that can be done to actively discourage bears from nearing population centers?

A:

There are best practices that are much the same for brown and black bears here in North America. A great community resource for ideas comes from the Bear Smart Community program in British Columbia, Canada (https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/plants-animals-ecosystems/wildlife/human-wildlife-conflict/staying-safe-around-wildlife/bears/bear-smart). Top of my list would be to eliminate sources of reward: bear proofing your waste system and any other outdoor food storage. Secondly is a longer term process of "teaching" bears that coming too close to people will result in a negative experience. Churchill does this through the Polar Bear Alert Program- professional conservation officers who intercept and deter bears trying to explore the community.


Q:

What's the most interesting fact or thing about polar bears in your opinion?

A:

That they successfully live in the Arctic and on the sea ice. When you fly out over the frozen ocean, it looks absolutely bare to you and me- ice and snow as far as you can see and in all directions. And yet...you see the world's largest land predator walking along a pressure ridge. Clearly there is more to the picture, but it's all out of view. Underneath that ice is a vibrant community of algae, plankton, polar cod, and seals (among other things) that depend on that ice for their lives.


Q:

If you shaved a polar bear bald, would it be black?

A:

Yes! And funny looking.


Q:

What influenced you in becoming a polar bear biologist? And what has been the most profound experience you've had thus far in studying or observing polar bears in the wild?

A:

The opportunity to travel to Alaska, and ultimately work in the Arctic back in 1991 influenced me heavily and also opened the first doors that led to my work with polar bears. My first job in Biology was helping out with a fisheries project in the Southern Beaufort Sea- radio tracking Arctic Char and whitefish. That experience and those professional connections led me to graduate school, to work with the USGS in AK, and ultimately to where I am today.


Q:

Do polar bears ever engage in sexual activities with members of the same and opposite sex, and if so would that make you a bi-polar bear biologist?

A:

While adult males can be surprisingly social, especially in places like Hudson Bay and Wrangel Island where they come ashore for longer periods of time, I have not yet seen same sex sexual activity. Even with modern research methods and increased access to the Arctic, polar bears still spend most of their lives out of human sight, so there are likely behaviors that are rarely seen, and possibly never seen yet to be discovered.


Q:

I don't suppose you're looking to employ a budding biologist? Asking for a friend..

A:

While we do not have any current openings- keep checking and look around at opportunities with Northern governments (regional and National) and other NGO's.


Q:

Do polar bears attack walruses?

A:

They certainly do, but it is not without risk so is done with care. Walrus tusks can easily wound or kill a polar bear and adult walrus skin is incredibly thick and tough. I have seen several walrus haul outs in Russia with resident male polar bears who often sit adjacent to, and are sometime surrounded by adult, mostly male walrus. They seem to be patiently looking for unattended young, sick, or natural mortalities that might offer easier prey opportunities but often just sit and watch.


Q:

Hi! Could you explain how 'walking hibernation' works, and how a bear goes into, and comes out of it, please?

A:

Thanks to some great research at the University of Alberta and Environment Canada, years of obtaining bear weights from the Polar Bear Alert holding facility here in Churchill, and a scale purchased by PBI- we now know that there is no such thing as walking hibernation in polar bears.