Researchers at a Scottish university have participated in what is likely to be the largest population survey of polar bears in Arctic Europe.
The estimate, provided by statisticians at the University of St Andrews, will help provide a clearer picture of numbers of the animal vulnerable to pollution and global warming.
The first large scale survey of polar bears in the Barents Sea region estimated 3,000 bears, which was at the low end of previous estimates of 3000 to 5000. In a new report by the WWF, scientists have warned that global warming could kill off polar bears within the next 20 years.
The Norwegian Polar Institute asked wildlife-surveying experts at St Andrews for help in a survey of the population of polar bears in Svalbard and Franz Josef Land. Tiago Marques, a PhD student at St Andrews, collaborated with the NPI, University of Oslo and Moscow’s VNII-PRIRODA in a five- week trip, surveying polar bears by helicopter.
Situated in Norway and Russia respectively, the surveyed areas represent huge nature reserves for polar bears. Of the estimated 25,000 polar bears worldwide, the Norway-Russian population represents around 12%. Polar bears are also found in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. The Norwegian-Russian- UK study is the first large-scale scientific population count of polar bears to be carried out in the region.
The resulting estimate, the clearest picture ever provided, provides the authorities with a baseline of the polar bear population in that area, before the effects of climate change remove much of their ice-sheet habitat. Though the large number means safety in the short-term, the NPI say that climate change and organic pollutants may affect the population in the long run.
The polar bears living in this region wander all over Svalbard, along the ice edge, east to Franz Josef Land and northeast along the ice edge towards Russia. They feed mainly on seals though last year saw a spate of bears breaking into cabins in search of food. Because polar bears use ice-sheets as plinths when hunting seals, the possibility of the effects of global warming melting ice puts bears, especially pregnant females, in a vulnerable position. The WWF say that melting ice will leave polar bears with less time on the sea ice to hunt for food and build up their fat stores, and increased time on land where they must fast.
Norway has an obligation to monitor its polar bear population through the International Polar Bear Agreement of 1973 and The Norwegian Ministry of the Environment funded the research project.
In the NPI’s report, the Norwegian Minister of the Environment, Knut Arild Hareide, said: “This count gives us a good basis for the future management of this animal. We know that the polar bear is threatened by organic pollutants and changes in climate. By conducting regular counts we will be able to monitor effects and trends in the polar bear population in a way we never could before.”
The survey was done by two different helicopters – one operated from Longyearbyen, the main settlement of Svalbard, and another from a research vessel along the ice edge and around the islands of Franz Josef Land. The surveys took place over a 5-week period last year. While one total count of polar bears was completed in the smaller Norwegian areas, the team of researchers used specialist St Andrews software to determine an estimate for the whole Norwegian-Russian population. The method involves mathematical calculations based on the number of bears observed over large areas. Additional data was provided through satellite tagged bears previously tracked in Svalbard by the NPI. It is hoped that the survey will be repeated in a few years time.
Tiago is attached to CREEM (Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling) at St Andrews, which is the only research centre of its kind in the UK specialising in wildlife survey techniques and modelling population dynamics. CREEM developed the world-leading software, which is the only survey software of its kind and is used all over the world for a variety of animal and plant species.
The trip was a personal as well as professional success for the young Portuguese researcher – prior to the trip Tiago had a fear of flying, but the long trip by air and the resulting 5 weeks in a helicopter successfully cured any phobia.
Tiago said: “It was a privilege to integrate the NPI team and to be part of work of which the final goal should be to contribute to the possibility that in 100 years or so people can still admire these animals in the wild. With current environmental policies, that seems a difficult task at present. Personally it was the experience of a lifetime, and it was fantastic to feel that my background biology degree combined with a more recent acquired statistical knowledge could be used together to provide answers in this study.”
WEBLINKS: CREEM: http://www.creem.st- and.ac.uk/ NORWEIGAN POLAR INSTITUTE: http://npiweb.npolar.no/
NOTE TO EDITORS:
TIAGO MARQUES IS AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW ON 00 35 1213611292 (PORTUGAL)
PROFESSOR STEVE BUCKLAND, PROFESSOR OF STATISTICS & PROJECT DIRECTOR OF CREEM, IS AVAILABLE ON 01334 461841
NOTE TO PICTURE EDITORS:
JPEGS OF TIAGO AT WORK AND OF POLAR BEARS ARE AVAILABLE FROM THE PRESS OFFICE – CONTACT DETAILS BELOW.
Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email [email protected] andrews.ac.uk Ref: Polar Populations 090205.doc View the latest University press releases at http://www.st- andrews.ac.uk