Being COY

April 21, 2010

Polar bear cubs captured, inspected, and released by Hank Harlow's research team. Photo: John Whiteman

The Bears of Summer is back–that’s John Whiteman’s contribution to a collection of polar research dispatches called Ice Stories maintained by the San Francisco Exploratorium. Whiteman, a PhD student in the University of Wyoming’s Program in Ecology, has returned to Kaktovik on Alaska’s north coast for early spring fieldwork.  He’s part of Hank Harlow’s polar bear physiology study, an NSF-funded research project that aims to understand to what extent warmer summer temps–and attendant changes in sea-ice coverage–may impact polar bears who use the ice as a hunting platform. The Harlow team has been capturing, examining, tagging and releasing bears early and late in the growing season since 2008 to find out if they are successfully feeding during the summer, and if not, how they may be using their own body’s resources (mainly fat) for sustenance.

In his latest post, Whiteman writes about examining a gigantic male, the largest bear he’s ever handled. He also comments on the number of COYs he’s seeing–”COYs” being cubs born around January. The above three are taking a snooze on their bear mama while waiting for  a short-lasting dose of anesthesia to wear off.

So far, the team has had some success in recapturing bears tagged last year and in capturing new ones as well; this is particularly good news given that last fall’s capture and study period was hampered by poor ice conditions that prevented the researchers from safely reaching the bears.


Tapestry waving in the wind

October 19, 2009

While trying to catch up on everything we missed last week, we just noticed that John Whiteman posted another in his series, “Polar Bears of Summer,” for Exploratorium’s NSF-funded outreach project, Ice Stories.  As ever, Whiteman delivers the goods from the USCGC Polar Sea, where the Hank Harlow-led team of University of Wyoming researchers are tracking and re-examining a set of bears they collared last spring.

US Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea navigates pancake ice in the Arctic Ocean.

US Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea navigates pancake ice in the Arctic Ocean.

The ship ran into some heavy seas, leading to all personnel being restricted from going on deck. Whiteman writes that the sea ice responding to the swells was “like watching an enormous tapestry waving in the wind.” If you haven’t checked out Whiteman’s dispatches, you’re missing the boat (and the bears).

Coasties and Helos and Bears, Oh My!

October 5, 2009
Coasties prepare a helicopter for flight operations supporting the Harlow polar bear study. Courtesy PA office, USCGC Polar Sea.

Coasties prepare for flight operations supporting a group of polar bear researchers, including a team led by Hank Harlow (U Wyoming). Courtesy USCGC Polar Sea.

The USCGC Polar Sea is out on the Beaufort Sea region of the Arctic Ocean looking for polar bears right now–and you can go too, via three different blog-style reports:

John Whiteman has an ongoing series of posts for the San Francisco Exploratorium’s on-line exhibit, Ice Stories, an NSF-funded project. The museum’s staff train and equip scientists for actual in-the-field reporting.  Whiteman, a PhD candidate at U Wyoming, obviously is equipped to offer technical details, and he uses plain language (and great pictures) to explain the science.  Last week he reported that lack of sea ice was hampering the study, as thin ice conditions were preventing the helicopter from setting down near bears the research team had located via the radio collars with which they had outfitted the bears during spring efforts. They have since been able to land and have collected some data from the study bears.

We know this from Christina Galvan’s PolarTREC blog. Galvan is a teacher sailing with the polar bear team courtesy of ARCUS’ PolarTREC program (also funded by NSF). In addition to reflecting on the science projects underway, Galvan faithfully answers her students’ excellent questions and tells about life on the ship.

The USCGC Polar Sea’s Public Affairs Officer’s report. This is a weekly news posting aimed at family and friends of the Coast Guard. This is the place where we read about ship operations, for example a snarl in the steering gear that required “steering by vice-grip” for a day or so  The PA also updates a photo page routinely.

The ship leaves a wake of broken ice. Photo courtesy USCGC Polar Sea.

The ship leaves a wake of broken ice. Photo courtesy USCGC Polar Sea.

In addition to these sources, National Geographic and Polar Bears International also have media teams on the cruise.  We’ll keep an eye out for their material as well.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

September 30, 2009

 

You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights. 
Dr. Seuss, 1990
Why is this woman smiling? Join PolarTREC and find out! This photo of Cristina Galvan, and all others in this piece, courtesy ARCUS / PolarTREC www.polartrec.org

Today is her day! Teacher Cristina Galvan flies with the high fliers. This photo and all others courtesy ARCUS / PolarTREC http://www.polartrec.org

As we write, Cristina Galvan of East Palo Alto Academy in Menlo Park, CA, is sailing on a coast guard ship, flying around in a helicopter, and getting up close and REALLY personal with polar bears. She does this as a member of ARCUSPolarTREC program, which is now accepting applications from teachers for the 2010 season (pending funding from the National Science Foundation).

Galvan is paired with Hank Harlow, Merav Ben-David, and John Whiteman of U of Wyoming, who are working with USGS and the USFWS to study the physiology of bears that traditionally follow the retreating sea-ice north each summer.  This year other Polar TREC teachers have accompanied a science team to a crater lake in remote Russia; camped on the shores of study lakes set in some of Alaska’s prettiest back country; tagged birds on the Pribilof Islands; and sampled snow in the blue light of the Summit snow pit. And those are just a few of the north polar projects.

As part of a science in education tour in Greenland last summer, Jennifer Thompson sampled snow at Summit Station.

As part of a science in education tour in Greenland last summer, teacher Jennifer Thompson sampled snow at Summit Station.

Teacher Barney Peterson prepares a sediment trap to be dropped into a lake for climate history studies.

Teacher Barney Peterson prepares a sediment trap to be dropped into a lake for climate history studies.

On Norway's Svalbard archipelago, teacher Mike Rhinard participates in a research experience for undergraduates field course studying high Arctic change. Here, the group prepares to lower a CTD sensor into the water.

On Norway's Svalbard archipelago, teacher Mike Rhinard participates in a research experience for undergraduates field course studying high Arctic change. Here, the group lowers a CTD sensor into the water.

From a recent ARCUS announcement about PolarTREC:  “PolarTREC . . . pairs K-12 teachers with researchers for professional development through authentic polar research experiences. The program integrates research and education to produce a legacy of long-term teacher-researcher collaborations, improved teacher content knowledge, and broad public interest and engagement in polar science.

“Through PolarTREC, teachers will spend two to six weeks in the Arctic or Antarctic, working closely with researchers in the field as an integral part of the science team. PolarTREC teachers and researchers will be matched based on similar goals and interests, and teachers will be trained to meet the program requirements prior to the field season.

“While in the field, teachers and researchers will communicate extensively with their colleagues, communities, and students of all ages across the globe, using a variety of tools including satellite phones, online journals, podcasts, and live events and web-based seminars. Teachers and research projects will be selected and matched to fill the openings available. All major expenses associated with teacher participation in PolarTREC field experiences are covered by the program, including transportation to and from the field site, food, lodging, and substitute teacher costs.”

Finlander students interact with Californian Michael Wing. Outreach with local communities is often part of the north polar TREC experience.

Finnish students interact with Californian Michael Wing. Outreach with local communities is often part of the north polar TREC experience.

What ARCUS doesn’t say here is that PolarTREC is just a heck of a lot of fun. The teachers who participate interact with their students while they’re in the field, and they return to the job enriched with experience that brings their teaching to life.  The scientists who host PolarTREC teachers are uniformly pleased with the experience, glad to have an extra pair of hands in the field and to have those hands attached to a mind that knows how to engage young people in the science. It’s a win-win.

Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.
And when things start to happen,
don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.
OH!
THE PLACES YOU’LL GO!
A fat moon climbs over Lake El’gygytgyn in northeast Russia.

A fat moon climbs over Lake El’gygytgyn in northeast Russia.

PolarTREC teacher application deadline: Monday, 5 October 2009

For further information, please contact PolarTREC at:
Email: info@polartrec.com
Phone: 907-474-1600


Polar Bear Project

July 31, 2009

By Emily Stone

This 220 lb, one-year-old cub is still with its mother. Photo: John Whiteman

This 220 lb, one-year-old cub is still with its mother. Photo: John Whiteman

You’ve probably seen a photo or video of a lumbering polar bear, seemingly forlorn, stuck on a small piece of ice in what looks like an endless stretch of sea. The animals have become the symbol for what’s at risk if the arctic sea ice continues to retreat each summer. But for all their emotional punch, very little is known about how the bears are coping with the dramatic changes in their habitat.

A group of researchers from the University of Wyoming is looking for some answers among the polar bears on the North Slope of Alaska. These bears are forced to decide between staying on land during the summer or following the ice edge north, past their normal feeding grounds to an area of deep ocean that may not hold much food. The researchers want to know what the polar bears are eating and how much they’re exerting themselves if they stay on land versus head north.

The project’s main question is: “Are they able to eat a lot during the summer, and if they’re not eating a lot, how well are they able to fast,” explains John Whiteman, a Ph.D. student on the project run by co-principal investigators Hank Harlow and Merav Ben-David.

Dr. Henry Harlow, Dr. Merav Ben-David, and John Whiteman (left to right) with an adult male polar bear who has been sedated for measurements. They’re sitting in front of a temporary windbreak (to make measurements easier) on sea ice off the northern coast of Alaska in October 2008. Photo: John Whiteman

Dr. Henry Harlow, Dr. Merav Ben-David, and John Whiteman (left to right) with an adult male polar bear who has been sedated for measurements. They’re sitting in front of a temporary windbreak (to make measurements easier) on sea ice off the northern coast of Alaska in October 2008. Photo: John Whiteman

The team is in the second year of the two-year project, which is based out of Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. They’re using a combination of blood, muscle, fat and breath samples, which reveal what and how often the animals are eating, along with GPS tracking collars and internal body temperature and activity monitors that the bears wear during the summers. Together the information will show how the bears on land are faring versus those that head north.

Read the rest of this entry »


Polar Bear Researchers of Summer

June 9, 2009
PhD student John Whiteman (U Wyoming) and polar bear cub. Photos courtesy John Whiteman for Exploratorium

Scientist John Whiteman and polar bear cub. Photos courtesy John Whiteman for Exploratorium

It looks as if grad student John Whiteman (U Wyoming) is living the dream of countless polar bear admirers.

For Whiteman, it’s all in a day’s field work. The PhD student spent about six weeks on the northern shore of Alaska this spring capturing and collecting samples from polar bears along the Beaufort Sea cost, to study how environmental change may be impacting the species. Whitman is part of Hank Harlow’s NSF-funded research aimed at understanding how polar bears are responding to the loss of arctic sea ice, an important hunting platform for the species.

Along with researchers from a long-term USGS study, Whiteman captured about 30 bears during his stay, locating them via low-flying helicopters, darting them from the air, and then landing to assess and sample the animals while they were unconscious. A subset of bears–those whose neck circumference was small enough to fit in the radio collar–were fitted with transmitters, both to capture data that allows scientists to understand the bears’ movements as summer takes hold and the sea ice goes out from the shore, and also to aid in recapture this fall for repeat measurements. After a period of six months or so, the collars will release automatically if the bears aren’t recaptured and manually freed from the transmitters.

A female encircles her cub as they sleep off the affects of anesthesia. "Generally the anesthesia we use does not wear off in a sudden fashion, and we monitor animals closely during captures," Whiteman explained in an email to us. "The cubs get a lights dose, so by the time we finish up they usually have found their way over to their mom, and are waiting for her to wake up."

A female encircles her cub as they sleep off the affects of anesthesia. "Generally the anesthesia we use does not wear off in a sudden fashion, and we monitor animals closely during captures," Whiteman explained in an email to us. "The cubs get a light dose, so by the time we finish up they usually have found their way over to their mom, and are waiting for her to wake up."

In addition to the research, Whiteman posted a series of reports for San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum, recipient of an NSF IPY outreach grant. Whiteman’s collection of writings, Bears of Summer, explains the research. He offers detailed views of his work: it was news to us that the scientists capture breath samples in specially designed bags, and that they can learn much about the animals’ general health and dietary habits from those packets of beary air.

This anesthetized male lies by a breath bag. The grey mat he lies on allows researchers to take Body Mass Index measurements as well.

This anesthetized male lies by a breath bag. The grey mat he lies on allows researchers to take Body Mass Index measurements as well.

There are wide-angle views too. Check the bird’s-eye view of a seal kill in the post called “Getting By Without Food.”

We wrote to Whiteman to inquire about his fall plans. He says he will return in August to the Beaufort Sea coast, and then board a Coast Guard ship in September to find bears that have followed the retreating sea ice north. Repeat measurements will provide information about how much or little the bears fed during the warm months, and their relative fitness compared with assessments made this spring. Internet access willing, Whiteman will continue his posts. “We are very excited about the intensive physiological data we are gathering, which is allowing us to answer new and important questions about how bears live over the summer,” he writes.

Armchair researchers, mark your calendars for August–and bookmark the Exploratorium Ice Stories site.


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