Poop and prints may supply contemporary insights on polar bear well being

Poop and prints may supply contemporary insights on polar bear well being

Poop and prints may supply contemporary insights on polar bear well being

Researchers are creating methods to trace polar bears via their scat and tracks, which could supply one other technique of monitoring the animals.

The work is a part of BearWatch, a challenge that tries to seek out non-invasive methods of monitoring polar bears’ response to local weather change. BearWatch combines genomics – the research of genes, together with their interactions with one another and the surroundings – with Inuit information. It consists of universities, communities, hunters and trappers’ associations, the Inuvialuit Sport Council, Canadian Rangers and governments.


The worldwide polar bear inhabitants is split into 19 subpopulations, monitored largely via aerial surveys. These surveys sometimes contain both counting animals from the air or capturing bears with a biopsy dart from a helicopter. The biopsy dart grabs a small pattern of pores and skin and fur earlier than falling off the animal, which may then be used to genetically establish particular person bears and estimate a subpopulation’s measurement.

These typical monitoring methods have their drawbacks, in line with a paper printed by BearWatch researchers final yr.

As a result of they’re costly and logistically difficult, monitoring utilizing these strategies tends to be rare. As of 2019, solely round a 3rd of polar bear subpopulations had inhabitants estimates lower than 10 years outdated, the researchers wrote.

Northern communities have additionally expressed concern over some methods’ invasiveness, their potential to negatively impression bears and the shortage of inclusion of Inuit information.

A paw print left by a polar bear. Steven Baryluk/GNWT

Polar bear monitoring just isn’t inclusive of northern communities, mentioned Peter Van Coeverden de Groot, an adjunct professor at Queen’s College in Kingston and one among BearWatch’s 4 principal investigators. Different challenge leaders embody Queen’s researchers Stephen Lougheed and Graham Whitelaw in addition to the Nunavut authorities’s Markus Dyck, who handed away in 2021. Northern colleagues corresponding to James Qitsualik, chairman of Gjoa Haven’s Hunters and Trappers Affiliation; William Aglukkaq, a hunter from Gjoa Haven; and Leonard Netser of Coral Harbour have additionally been instrumental within the challenge, Van Coeverden de Groot mentioned.


With typical monitoring, the “lion’s share” of polar bear administration cash goes to helicopter corporations, Van Coeverden de Groot advised Cabin Radio after presenting an replace on the challenge in December at ArcticNet, an Arctic analysis convention.

He and his colleagues hope that advances developed via BearWatch assist redirect polar bear administration funds into communities.

At a minimal, he mentioned, “you’re giving the folks the piece of the pie they’ve been minimize out of.”

Information in dung

For the previous few years, Van Coeverden de Groot and his colleagues have been assessing the varieties of data they’ll receive from non-invasive samples.


To that finish, they’ve been working with companions in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories to acquire samples of scat and snow from polar bear tracks. They’ve additionally been gathering tissue samples from harvested bears as a solution to vet the data gleaned from scat. A set of samples that Van Coeverden de Groot calls “fecal socks” – basically polar bears’ colons tied off on each ends – is exclusive in polar bear analysis and permits scientists to match feces to the bear it got here from, he mentioned.

Steven Baryluk, an NWT authorities supervisor of wildlife administration, has contributed samples to the challenge for a number of years. Up to now, Baryluk mentioned, the Northwest Territories has submitted greater than 850 DNA samples, 450 fecal samples and greater than 100 samples from polar bear tracks.

“It’s essential to essentially acknowledge the work of the harvesters within the area,” he mentioned.

Steven Baryluk amassing polar bear poo throughout survey work. Adam Thom/GNWT

Van Coeverden de Groot mentioned scat, particularly, gives a wealthy profile of polar bear well being.

“There’s an amazing quantity of data we are able to get from scat that we can’t get, even when we tried, from aerial biopsy,” he mentioned.

Within the paper printed final yr, Van Coeverden de Groot and his colleagues developed a way that makes use of DNA of their scat to reliably differentiate particular person bears, establish their intercourse and assess their genetic relatedness.

Poop may additionally supply clues a couple of bear’s publicity to contaminants. By analyzing their units of tissue and fecal samples, Van Coeverden de Groot and his colleagues have been in a position to discover how ranges of 110 contaminants in tissue relate to their ranges in scat from the identical bear. Though the analysis has but to be printed, he mentioned, preliminary outcomes recommend that for some contaminants, “what you get within the shit is similar as what you get within the fats, the liver or the muscle.” 

Analyzing scat can present data on a bear’s current meals in addition to its longer-term eating regimen, Van Coeverden de Groot mentioned. Gathering this data yr after yr may allow scientists to see how a bear is likely to be altering its eating regimen in response to local weather change, data that will be not possible to acquire via different means, Van Coeverden de Groot mentioned.

“Are you going to take a seat there and watch it in a kayak?” he mentioned. “Bears are making choices about their surroundings and we’re simply guessing.”

Snow samples

Polar bear poo isn’t the one possibility for non-invasive monitoring.

The BearWatch crew is within the early phases of creating methods to gather DNA from tracks left within the snow, which might be used to genetically establish bears and decide their intercourse.

From 2020 to 2022, analysis groups in Coral Harbour, Nunavut, examined strategies for amassing snow from paw prints like scooping them up with latex gloves, a sterilized snow knife or a trowel.

Gathering snow tracks from a younger cub. Steven Baryluk/GNWT

If the strategy is proven to work, utilizing paw prints for monitoring could be game-changing, Baryluk mentioned. It would permit managers to acquire details about bears that aren’t sometimes harvested, he mentioned, corresponding to moms and cubs.

Scat monitoring exhibits promise as effectively, he mentioned, as a number of the data from fecal samples seems to be a very good approximation of what might be gathered from extra invasive methods.

Baryluk mentioned the strategy could miss some data, nevertheless, corresponding to a polar bear’s age. The complete extent of the method’s capabilities just isn’t but clear.

Consultants additionally nonetheless have to determine how the brand new instruments will match right into a polar bear administration framework, Van Coeverden de Groot mentioned. To do this, he mentioned they should understand how a lot it prices to gather the info — a query that he and his colleagues at the moment are working to reply.

In the end, Van Coeverden de Groot want to see the brand new instruments utilized in a ground-based survey throughout Canada, and doubtlessly throughout polar bears’ complete vary. He’d additionally prefer to see the instruments rolled out in a method that’s inclusive of Inuit communities and information.

All through the challenge, harvesters have been paid $50 to $75 {dollars} for amassing scat samples, which Van Coeverden de Groot mentioned just isn’t a long-term answer. “That’s not the place we need to find yourself.” The thought, he mentioned, is to make Inuit a a lot greater a part of the entire administration course of.

This text is produced below a Inventive Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence via the Wilfrid Laurier College Local weather Change Journalism Fellowship.

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