A polar bear walks along the Hudson Bay coast in Churchill, Manitoba while waiting for the sea ice to arrive., Brandon Laforest
A polar bear walks along the Hudson Bay coast in Churchill, Manitoba while waiting for the sea ice to arrive. © Brandon Laforest

Up Close and Personal: Polar Bear Research in Hudson Bay



A bear had been spotted in the distance and we needed to leave the area to avoid disturbing her.

Submitted by Brandon Laforest, a W. Garfield Weston Fellow working with WCS Canada

I remember the first time I saw a wild polar bear. It was July 2007 and I was a second year undergraduate student on a field course in Churchill Manitoba, offered through the University of Guelph. The course was billed as a subarctic biodiversity based expedition, but there was no denying that the greatest draw for the 20 students on the course was the chance to see a polar bear on the tundra (in between plankton tows and insect net swings, of course). Each day we didn’t see a bear our tension grew, along with the quiet murmurings of students contemplating the worst case scenario: that we had traveled all the way to the polar bear capital of the world only to return home with nothing but a deep appreciation of the ostracod and butterwort diversity of the region.

Finally, when sampling near the rocky shoreline bluffs halfway through the course, one of our bear guards signaled for everyone to return to our (should-have-long-been-retired) school bus. A bear had been spotted in the distance and we needed to leave the area to avoid disturbing her. As you can imagine, this announcement had anything but the desired effect on the group of eager young ecologists who defiantly clambered for their binoculars to catch a glimpse of this emblematic Canadian species. The bear kept her distance, remaining not much more than a speck on the horizon to the naked eye. Still, I was captivated not only by my own reaction to being in her presence, but the excitement and awe she generated in my fellow students, my professors, and even our seasoned bear guards.
We would later embark on a Tundra Buggy ride where we would see many bears, including a mother and cub that came within 10 feet of our vehicle. It was these more intimate, extended encounters that really stayed with me and, unbeknownst to me at the time, shaped my entire career. I returned to Guelph to finish my undergraduate degree in Wildlife Biology, and went on to complete a Masters degree in Animal Nutrition and Metabolism working with Asian elephants in a zoo setting. In the back of my mind, though, was this nagging feeling that I wanted to return to studying ecology. Specifically, I wanted to return to the North to work with polar bears.

  • A mother polar bear inspects our Tundra Buggy during my first up-close polar bear encounter in Churchill, Manitoba in 2007.

    A mother polar bear inspects our Tundra Buggy during my first up-close polar bear encounter in Churchill, Manitoba in 2007.
    © Brandon Laforest

  • Taking measurements of a polar bear’s skull using calipers under the tutelage of Tim Moody of the OMNRF in 2012.

    Taking measurements of a polar bear’s skull using calipers under the tutelage of Tim Moody of the OMNRF in 2012.
    © Dr. Gregory Thiemann

  • With a sedated large male polar bear during our field season in 2013.

    With a sedated large male polar bear during our field season in 2013.
    © Dr. Gregory Thiemann

Currently, I am in the last year of a PhD program within the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University where I am studying under the direction of Dr. Gregory Thiemann and Dr. Martyn Obbard of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF). During my studies, I have had the privilege of studying polar bears at the southern extent of the species range, namely the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation that is under the shared jurisdiction of Ontario, Quebec, and Nunavut. For the past two years, I have been a recipient of The W. Garfield Weston Foundation Fellowship program offered through Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. This support of my fieldwork, and mentorship opportunities with Dr. Cheryl Chetkiewicz, the Ontario Northern Boreal Landscape Leader with WCS Canada, has proven invaluable in the progression of my research program and my own development as a northern scholar.

My research involves the live capture of wild polar bears in collaboration with trained professionals from the OMNRF. We take a variety of measurements and biological samples from each bear we handle, while carefully monitoring the health and welfare of every bear we work with. To study polar bear diets, we take a small sample of fat from each bear. We then use the relative proportion of the components of these fat samples — the fatty acids — to reconstruct the diet of individual polar bears based on statistical models that take into account the proportional availability of different fatty acids in the marine food web. For example, analyses of fatty acid composition in polar bear fat can tell you how much ringed seal, bearded seal, beluga whale, and other marine mammal prey items contribute to the diet to each individual polar bear in your study.

Specifically, my research looks at the variation in foraging patterns at the individual-level in polar bear populations. I am interested in how diets differ between different groups of polar bears, such as: males vs. females, young bears vs. adult bears, reproductively active mothers vs. solitary females, and wide-ranging bears vs. those that inhabit relatively small areas. I am also interested in the variation within each of these subgroups, and within individual bears over many years. We know that the Southern Hudson Bay polar bear population faces both a weakening sea ice platform and an abbreviated foraging season. The goal of my research is to deepen our understanding of the bears’ individual foraging patterns and the environmental threats that might affect them and ultimately impinge on the fitness and survival of individual bears. The results of this dietary research will be vital when making conservation decisions of polar bears in the region, as it will reveal age and sex specific foraging patterns in the species. The information generated from this study will help us better predict how polar bears will be affected by a shifting marine food web in Hudson Bay.

When polar bears appear on television screens against the vast tundra landscape, it can be difficult to gauge their size. They are the biggest bear species in the world, with the largest males tipping the scales at over 589kg and 260cm in length from snout to tail. However, in my opinion, what is even more fascinating about polar bears is the range of body sizes present in any given polar bear population. Polar bears become independent from their mothers when they are around two and a half years old, when they enter what we call the ‘subadult’ phase. Male polar bears continue to grow until they are around 10 years old, and females continue to grow until they are around 6 years old, so these subadult bears are markedly smaller than their older counterparts.

My most striking memory of this variation in size that will always stick with me is a bear my research team and I handled in 2012. We captured her in October, when she was two years old, turning three later in the winter. She was 170cm long, and weighed only 145kgs. To put that in perspective, earlier that field season we handled an adult male bear that weighed 503 kgs., almost 3.5 times bigger in terms of body weight! Yet, these two individual bears inhabit the same landscape, feed from the same marine food web, and are experiencing the same challenges associated with sea ice decline in Hudson Bay. The questions we try to answer become: are they being affected equally by the challenges of climate change? If not, in what way and by what magnitude are these challenges different? And, what implications does this have on the long-term persistence of the population as a whole?

Being able to get up close with wild polar bears and fully appreciate the diversity of body sizes in the population has fueled my excitement for my research. By identifying the ecological niches of different groups of bears, as well as the variation of foraging strategies within and across these groups, we will be better situated to predict the future foraging success of polar bears in a warming Arctic ecosystem. Those individuals who are best able to obtain food in changing conditions will be in the best position to weather the effects of climate change. Therefore, understanding the links between individual polar bears, their habitat, and their prey is a conservation research priority.

My understanding of the implications of polar bear conservation, while always developing, has also grown beyond merely a scientific perspective through my interdisciplinary studies within the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. I look forward to continuing this research, and for my work to contribute to appropriate and meaningful wildlife conservation and management efforts in Canada’s North.
When I think back to how inspired I felt during my first encounter with a polar bear, I am reminded of how unbelievably lucky I have been to have had the opportunity to work with this animal during my doctoral studies. My reverence for the species has only grown with every opportunity to work with polar bears I have been afforded. Eight years later, every time I see a wild polar bear I am still left with the same feeling of awe I felt during my first encounter.


Acknowledgements
This research has been generously supported by Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, The W. Garfield Weston Foundation, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Polar Bears International, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Born Free Foundation, the Northern Scientific Training Program, and the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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