Project updates


You can find project updates in three places:

                                                1) on this page (most recent updates at the top)

                                                2) on the PolarTREC website

                                                3) on the Ice Stories website


July 2013

In spring of 2013, we published a paper describing successful testing of methods used for analysis of polar bear blood - see the paper here. This paper also describes our finding that polar bears have higher triglycerides in blood very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDLs) than in blood low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), making polar bears different than black bears, human beings, and rats - further research is needed to understand how this relates to the high-fat diet of polar bears. This summer, PhD student John Whiteman is continuing to analyze data and write up results so they can be published.


February 2013

In January 2012, PhD student John Whiteman presented preliminary data from this project at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology annual meeting. Since then, he has completed laboratory assays of tissue samples collected during field work from 2008 to 2010. With his collaborators, John is now building a database to link all of the data collected thus far in the project, to enable comprehensive analyses of the entire dataset.

Recently, the group of scientists working on this project published a peer-reviewed paper that describes successful testing of methods used for analysis of breath of polar bears; the testing was performed on breath of captive brown bears (this paper was mentioned in the update from spring 2011). The paper can be read here. Another paper testing the methods used for analyses of the blood samples is currently being reviewed for publication (see the description of the review process in the update from January 2011).

In November 2012, John traveled to Churchill, Canada, to be a panelist for discussions of polar bear ecology and conservation, broadcast live into classrooms and over the internet for the general public. The archived webcasts are available here. A short video describing polar biology, especially for students and children, is available here.


September 2011

Over the summer, PhD student John Whiteman presented preliminary data from this project at the International Bear Association Conference in July (Ottawa, Canada) and the Ecological Society of America Conference in August (Austin, Texas). John won a travel award and student speaker award at the Ecological Conference. This summer he was also awarded a 3-year Fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency of the US. This fellowship will support his stipend and educational expenses, and allow him to focus on ongoing lab assays of tissue samples.

Arctic sea ice should reach its minimum extent for 2011 during September; as of September 6th, extent was quite close to the record minimum recorded in 2007. Follow the melt at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.


March 2011

PhD student John Whiteman completed coursework and qualifying exams. He also submitted applications to present preliminary data at the International Bear Association Conference in July (Ottawa, Canada) and the Ecological Society of America Conference in August (Austin, Texas, USA). To augment analyses of muscle tissue samples performed at the University of Wyoming, samples were analyzed by a collaborator at California State University (Long Beach, CA). This data will strengthen the inferences based on muscle samples. New equipment was also ordered to aid muscle analyses at the University of Wyoming.

When doing field work, we collected breath samples from polar bears; these samples allow us to understand more about whether the bear was fasting, and if not, what it may have been eating. To help understand our data on polar bears, we performed the same sampling and analyses on captive brown bears. This spring we analyzed the data from captive brown bears and wrote up the results to submit for peer-reviewed publication (see entry from January 2011 for a description of the peer-review process).


January 2011

The first results from this study were published. In the peer-reviewed scientific journal Polar Biology, collaborators of this project along with other scientists reported a unique event that occurred in late summer 2008. An adult female polar bear and her yearling cub were sampled in August. The adult was fitted with a GPS tracking collar. She later departed from shore and swam north for 9 straight days through open ocean, covering a total of 687 km. She eventually reached the pack ice, which had retreated far to the north during the summer melt. Once she reached the sea ice, she eventually followed it back to shore as the ice expanded south in the fall. She was re-sampled in late October after completing her journey of over 2,000 km. At that point, her yearling cub was not with her and she had lost about 22% of her body mass.

These results are very interesting because there is little description in the scientific literature of such swimming events. We learned that it is possible for a polar bear to move from shore to ice despite great distance, but this bear may have paid a very high price by losing so much body mass and potentially losing her cub.

The time lag between the event (2008) and the publication of this paper (2011) is normal for scientific studies. The data must be collected, analyzed, written in an article, then submitted to a journal for publication. If the editors of the journal agree the article represents important new scientific information, they send it to other scientists who review it for accuracy and clarity. There may be several rounds of review and revision. Afterwards, if the final version of the article is accepted by the editors, it will finally be published.

The article is titled “Consequences of long-distance swimming and travel over deep-water pack ice for a female polar bear during a year of extreme sea ice retreat.” The authors are George M. Durner, John P. Whiteman, Henry J. Harlow, Steven C. Amstrup, Eric V. Regehr, and Merav Ben-David. Currently the article is only available online; it will be available in print later this year.

December 2010

Lab work continued at the University of Wyoming campus, mainly focused on muscle samples. John Whiteman (PhD student) finished coursework in regression analysis and statistical programming – important approaches to analyzing data generated in this project.

October 2010

John Whiteman (UW PhD student) traveled to San Francisco for public outreach about this project. He spent several days at the charter school of the high school teacher that partnered with this project through PolarTREC (see February 2009 update). There, he provided feedback for student presentations on creating plans for biodiversity conservation. He presented lessons on animal metabolism (including descriptions of how polar bears may adjust to the annual sea ice cycle by reducing energetic needs during summer) and on the effects of climate change on polar bears. In addition, John visited the San Francisco Exploratorium Science Museum, which hosts the Ice Stories website.


September 2010

Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent for the year on September 19th. In an unusual event, the ice reached a low extent on September 10th, began increasing, then fell again to the low on the 19th. The summer minimum extent for this year is the third-lowest since the advent of satellite data in 1979. Read more about this year’s ice conditions and the minimum extent at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.


July 2010 

Through the course of this study, we have collected tiny samples of muscle tissue from bears. We began analyzing this tissue to understand whether bears were fasting and going without food on ice or on shore during summer, and whether bears were reducing activity to save energy as well. To begin, we practiced the assays to ensure they are working correctly. In June, preliminary data from this project was presented in a talk and a poster at the 90th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists, in Laramie, Wyoming. In August, additional preliminary data was displayed in a poster at the American Physiological Society Intersociety Meeting, in Denver, Colorado. This international conference highlighted effects of climate change on physiology.


April – May 2010

Researchers from the University of Wyoming joined the USGS polar bear team for captures of polar bears. The USGS team captured approximately 50 bears, 5 of which had previously been sampled for this project. Sampling for this project was repeated on these 5 bears. Repeated sampling of the same bears will allow us to track changes in individuals that could be caused by environmental changes.


March 2010

Samples collected in the field continue to be analyzed on campus at the University of Wyoming. Preliminary data from breath samples suggests that some bears captured in autumn of 2008 and 2009 were indeed fasting - that is, they were going for extended periods of time without food. More analysis will reveal where these bears spent their time, and how long they had gone without food.

John Whiteman traveled to Argentina this month, visiting a national university (Universidad de La Plata), a research center (in Neuquen Province), and a national park (NP San Guillermo). He gave presentations describing polar bear ecology during summer months, and giving a summary of the goals of this project. It was a great exchange with ecology and biology students and scientists of Argentina.

Every spring, US Geological Survey (USGS) captures polar bears along the northern coast of Alaska, to gather more information on the movements of bears and the status of the population. Because some of these bears have been previously sampled as part of this project, we will join USGS in the field from late March to mid May. During this period, if any bears are captured that have previously been sampled for this project, we will re-sample them. This will provide important information on changes in bear physiology over time. This capture effort will use 1 helicopter from late March until mid April, then 2 helicopters from mid April to mid May. The personnel will work out of Barrow in March and April, Kaktovik during mid April, and Deadhorse in late April and early May.


January 2010

The University of Wyoming recently changed over computer software, making it difficult to update this webpage; apologies for the delay. In November, University of Wyoming personnel returned to Laramie, Wyoming. Over the next two months, we sorted and stored samples and gear as they arrived on campus, prepared reports summarizing progress of the project, and wrapped up autumn coursework. In early November, John Whiteman gave a presentation on the use of stable isotope analyses in this project; tiny samples of fat tissue, muscle tissue, or even breath from a polar bear can be used with stable isotope lab techniques to estimate nutritional status. The presentation was at the Carnivore Conservation Conference. We also returned to optimizing techniques for laboratory analyses of the samples we have collected.

October 2009

Half of our field crew arrived in Barrow, Alaska, on September 24th/25th. They met up with a documentary photographer, a documentary filmmaker, and three other research teams: one team investigating the distribution of tiny organisms that live on the underside of the sea ice, another focused on the photosynthetic abilities of organisms floating in the sea water, and a third team interested in cataloguing the distribution of birds and mammals in the Arctic.

These teams boarded the US Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea on September 26th. The ship traveled west then north and spent 5 weeks following the advancing edge of the pack ice, spending most of the time several hundred miles north of Alaska and Russia. When weather allowed, two helicopters were launched from the ship for capturing polar bears on the sea ice to collect measurements and samples. In early October, a Native Observer from Barrow, Alaska, joined the cruise. The cruise ended, back in Barrow, on November 1st.

The other half of our field crew arrived in Deadhorse, Alaska, in early October. This crew used two helicopters to capture polar bears on shore. Operations were completed by late October. The crew on the ship and the crew on shore combined to recapture 11 bears that had previously been sampled, allowing us to evaluate how individual bears change over time. Some new bears were captured as well, allowing us to compare changes in all bears encountered between early summer and late summer.

September 2009

During autumn classes, we finalized remaining logistics for the upcoming recapture season. This fall we will recapture bears that were sampled earlier in the year, to allow comparisons between before- and after-summer data. Such comparisons will allow us to understand whether bears must fast during the warm Arctic summer, whether they are able to reduce their metabolic rate and thus their energetic needs, and other questions related to this critical time of the year. This understanding will allow a better prediction of how bears will be affected by climate change.

This autumn we will recapture bears that have spent the summer on shore, by using two helicopters based at Deadhorse, near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. These helicopters will perform captures from about October 3rd to 26th. In addition, we will recapture bears that have spent the summer on the sea ice by using two helicopters based on the US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea. The icebreaker will travel hundreds of miles north of Barrow, Alaska, to the edge of the retreated sea ice in late September. Then, it will follow the sea ice south as it expands during October. The ship-based recaptures will occur from about September 28th to November 1st.

The Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its annual minimum extent by mid-September. Read more about it from the National Snow and Ice Data Center of the US here.

August 2009

We joined the USGS capture effort for the first two weeks of August. We rented lab space and living quarters at the US Air Force radar site at Oliktok Point. As in previous seasons, we used two helicopters. We captured a total of about 12 adult bears; of these, 6 bears received the full sampling for the University of Wyoming-led project. Our captures ceased by August 12th, and the USGS captures ceased by August 20th.

Most bears also received the small alternative radio tags attached directly to their fur, described in the June 2009 update. Hopefully these tags will stay attached and will function well in the harsh Arctic environment. If so, they will provide another tool for researchers to use to gather data and minimize disturbance to the bears.

In addition to the scheduled capture effort, we returned to the north slope in late August in response to concerns over a particular bear. The tracking data from this bear, a female that was wearing a GPS collar and which had been sampled in May, indicated she was traveling in and around the town of Kaktovik (the town was mentioned in the April 2009 update). Residents in town reported her presence, and there was concern that this bear in ill health. We recaptured her near town on August 29th. Fortunately, she was not in ill health and she had no complications and no difficulties from previous samplings.

July 2009

We continued to prepare logistics for our trip to Alaska in August, during which two helicopters will be used to find and capture bears along the coast. The polar bear summer ecology project is a collaboration between the University of Wyoming and US Geological Survey (USGS) and US Fish and Wildlife Service. In August, this means that our bear captures will be a subset of the USGS capture effort. USFWS will contribute the alternative radio tags described in the June 2009 update.

We also finalized logistics for our icebreaker cruise this fall. In late September, half of our research team will board the US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea and cruise north, to the edge of the retreating sea ice. We will spend 6 weeks cruising along the edge of the sea ice and recapturing bears that were first sampled in spring. This will allow us to find out how bears are affected by spending the summer on the sea ice (for example, we plan to establish whether the bears were able to find food on sea ice over deep waters). This cruise was presented to the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission this spring, described in the March 2009 update.

In late September, the other half of our research team will return to the coast. This group will stay on shore and will recapture bears that have spent the summer on the coast. Simultaneous capture operations – on the sea ice and on the coast – will allow us to compare bears that chose different summering strategies in the same year.

June 2009

The field team returned to Anchorage and to the University of Wyoming in late May, and immediately began preparing for upcoming field work. In August, we will return to the Deadhorse area for more captures.

During August, we will deploy alternative radio/GPS tracking devices; instead of traditional collars, these small units directly attach to the fur or ear of the polar bear. The units have successfully been used with polar bears and seals by previous researchers. These devices are part of ongoing efforts to continually refine tracking methods, to improve bear safety and quality of data collection. In addition, we worked with the collar manufacturers to redesign the collars that were deployed in April and May, again to improve safety and quality.

Arctic ice extent peaked on February 28th. Ice extent changed little during March, before the spring melt accelerated in April and May. Throughout the month of June, ice extent was substantially below the 1979-2000 average. Read more about the melt season here.  

May 2009

Captures of polar bears for this project continued until May 20th. Samples were gathered from over 30 bears, and 17 bears received GPS collars. We collected the same measurements from these bears as we did in previous field seasons (including body mass, length, body fat content, and other measurements). We will recapture these bears in the fall; this will allow us to make important comparisons of how bears change during the summer. Some of the bears we captured this spring will follow the retreating sea ice north during the summer breakup. We will use an icebreaker ship and helicopters to recapture these bears.

April 2009

We joined the "Ice Stories" project of the San Francisco Exploratorium Science and Art Museum. We will post updates with photos and text from the field, as we capture bears.

On April 17th, George Durner (USGS scientist) and John Whiteman (UW PhD student) held an open house meeting in the town of Kaktovik, Alaska. Polar bears are frequently seen near Kaktovik (and in town), and polar bear research crews often base their capture work there. The open house was a great chance to meet with residents of Kaktovik, to share details about this project, and to discuss research methods and results.

Captures of polar bears for this project began on April 20th, based out of Deadhorse, Alaska. Temperatures had been cold, but warmed up to over 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) for several days in late April.

March 2009

We presented an overview of our project to a meeting of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in Anchorage, Alaska. The Commission consists of residents from northern and northwestern Alaska who manage the subsistence harvest of bowhead whales. We extend our gratitude to the Commission for the opportunity to share information on our project.

We are compiling gear, finalizing schedules for housing and helicopters, and preparing other logistical details for spring field work.

February 2009

We are optimizing some of the analyses we will perform on samples, to ensure that each test works as perfectly as possible before we use the tests on the samples from the bears. Some analyses have begun.

We have been paired with a high school teacher through PolarTREC, a program that places educators with research teams in the Arctic and Antarctic. This program develops an educator’s understanding of the scientific process, and of a specific topic in science. The teacher uses this experience to build lesson plans and presentations for their schools and communities. We look forward to working with our teacher! She is documenting her experiences at the PolarTREC website.

October 2008

We returned to the North Slope of Alaska in early October, and began recapturing bears that we had originally captured in August. Some new bears were captured as well. Captures took place October 8–27. At captures, we repeated measurement collection to see how bears had changed during the previous ~ 2 months, and we removed radio collars. We were unable to recapture all of our bears from August; for bears that were not recaptured, the radio collars automatically released and fell off of the animals in mid-November. Upon return to the University of Wyoming, we safely froze all of our samples for later analyses.

We worked out of Deadhorse for several weeks then moved to the town of Kaktovik for a short period at the end of the month. Conditions were mostly good, although we did not fly for several multi-day stretches due to poor visibility. Temperatures were about 0–30 degrees during the day, with frequent light snow.

August 2008

Field work took place August 2–29. We (the research team) captured a total of 29 polar bears on the northern Alaskan coast in the area of Prudhoe Bay, and we placed GPS radio collars on 13 adults. We collected measurements and samples that will yield many details regarding the condition, health, and movements of these bears. We were based in the town of Deadhorse, Alaska.

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