Whiskers, photos and polar bears, oh my!

We are excited to welcome our first guest blogger of the new decade, Paige Bissonnette, a master’s student from University of Manitoba. Today Paige tells us all about her fascinating work with polar bears! For more about Paige, see the end of this post. 

As our tundra vehicle rolled into the docking station, an armed bear guard escorted us to our bus to be shuttled back to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. I had just spent the day observing polar bears and being called a researcher by 30 tourists. Just like the guests on the tundra vehicle, I too was grinning from ear to ear, brimming with excitement.

My excitement had been building, slowly, ever since 4th grade, when a researcher came to my class and taught us about climate change and species-at-risk. The poster child for the talk was, you guessed it, the polar bear. After the talk, I was so excited about polar bears that I spent all my time in the library trying to learn more about them and threats to their habitat – even going so far as to cite my sources in my notes.

Fourteen years later, I had become the expert answering eager questions from groups of enthusiastic tourists. When I was given the assignment to co-lead learning vacations in Churchill, I was one part excited and 99 parts nervous. How did I get this job? Was I qualified to answer questions? Imposter syndrome was running rampant, as I’m sure it does for most graduate students at the beginning of their careers. I could easily relate to the tourists’ excitement: my dream was to see a polar bear in the wild, and here I was snapping photos through a tundra vehicle window.

But the goal of my trip was greater than capturing an Instagram-worthy photo. While I was primarily here to collect data for my master’s research on polar bear behaviour, my job also included using my knowledge, passion, and curiosity to encourage visitors to become citizen scientists, and contribute data to an ongoing long-term research project.

As the ice on Hudson Bay breaks up each spring, polar bears are forced onto the shore, away from their primary prey of ringed seals. While on land, they enter a fasting period, relying on a thick layer of blubber to support the energetic demands of maintaining their body temperature in the harsh Arctic environment. Pregnant females head upland, away from the shore, to build dens to birth their young. Non-pregnant females and males will spend time on land, resting and waiting for the ice to form in the fall. This is the most opportune time to see polar bears in the wild, and tourists and wildlife photographers flock to Churchill, Manitoba, “The Polar Bear Capital of the World”, to view the bears in their natural environment.

Thousands of photos are taken each year on these trips, and scientists realized there might be a way to use these photos to learn more about polar bear populations. In 1994, researchers developed a method to non-invasively identify individual polar bears through their whisker spot pattern. Each bear has a unique pattern of hair follicles, a whiskerprint (similar to a human fingerprint), that can be deciphered by a computer program. This discovery was the start of a long-term research project on the Western Hudson Bay population of polar bears. Photos taken by tourists, aka citizen scientists, are now fed into the whiskerprint program and used to estimate the size of the polar bear population in the area east of Churchill, and determine which bears are coming back year after year.

A curious polar bear checking out a tundra vehicle window.

In 2017 and 2018, as a graduate student at University of Manitoba, I went up to Churchill to collect data for my thesis, continue the citizen science project, and communicate findings from this project to the tourists who came to see the bears. Each day, we headed out into the field on a tundra vehicle which seated around thirty people. The journey into the middle of the tundra was roughly an hour of travel across uneven terrain and over frozen streams, as anticipation built among the tourists. Finally, someone would yell out, “I see one!”, and guests would rush to their window, binoculars in hand, to gaze out the window at a polar bear kilometers away. The tundra vehicle would screech to a halt and we would sit and wait to see if the bear was interested enough to come closer to us. Often, after a patient and silent wait, it would amble in our direction. Amid gasps of excitement and shuffling to the window with the best view, we would try to ensure we got photos of each side of its face. Guests often brought me their cameras, enthusiastically asking, “Is this one good? How did I do?” They began to gain a sense of purpose – gathering not just their own collection of cute photos, but data for wildlife research as well.

While in the field we took opportunities to gather as much observational data as possible, not only for our research, but to also to show the guests how much information can be collected non-invasively. Guests often shouted out, “the neck is larger than the head; the guard hairs are long – it must be a male”; repeating little bits of information we had discussed earlier. We also discussed how a changing climate has resulted in a decline in body condition for most bears. To measure body condition non-invasively, we took full body photos of the bear. I explained that we would measure the number of pixels from the top of the shoulder to the bottom of the foot, and the top of the back to the bottom of the belly to create a ratio of body proportion, similar to the measure of body mass index that uses weight and height. The guests were eager to help me take body condition shots, and aid in data collection.

I had a personal stake in the photos, as I am studying whether body condition influences social interactions between polar bears, specifically play behaviour. Adult mammals rarely play; they allocate most of their energy and time budgets to competition, feeding and mating. When social play does occur, it’s usually during periods of plentiful resources, when animals have extra time and energy to spend on seemingly purposeless activities such as play. However, in the western Hudson Bay region, adult male polar bears have been spotted engaging in social play. Polar bear social play consists of wrestling or sparring; males will rear up on their hind legs and wrestle, using moves similar to those used when competing for mates or resources.

We can’t ask the bears why they are playing during a resource limited time when they should be conserving energy, but we can determine what affects the duration and occurrence of social play. The body condition photos taken by guests on the learning vacation to determine if bears in better body condition play for longer or tend to initiate play.

Male polar bears sparring 100m away from our tundra vehicle

Each day, after collecting data out on the tundra, we returned to the research station, organized hundreds of photos, and began to analyze them. I walked the guests through the whiskerprint program, showing them how we extract a print and compare it against photos in our dataset to determine the bear’s identity. I could feel that the guests had a new-found sense of belonging to the scientific community. They were contributing to a long-term data set and coming to the realization that science is for everyone – not just graduate students and professors. Working with the guests on this project also brought me a sense of joy – as I felt I had come full circle. When I set out on this adventure, I had no idea what science communication meant, or the impact it could have. Now here I was, sparking curiosity in members of the public, just like the speaker in my 4th grade class.

I also felt proud that in addition to answering questions about polar bears, my research was helping teach people about the scientific method, making them into citizen scientists. Citizen science is a powerful tool that has helped catalyze innovative research techniques and allowed for the collection of much more data than individual scientists working alone would be able to assemble. Including the public in the data collection and analysis process improves scientific literacy and makes people feel included in the scientific community. Tapping into the public’s natural curiosity about the world allows scientists to answer questions that would have been impossible to answer alone, and more importantly, helps create a sense of care about the issues wildlife and the environment face.

A mom and two cubs keeping warm in a polar bear pile up.

Paige Bissonnette is a master’s student at University of Manitoba studying polar bear social behaviour. She focuses on using non-invasive techniques and novel technological approaches to assess the factors that influence polar bear social play. She is passionate about sharing her love of polar bears and the Arctic through science communication initiatives.