Scientific Research

© Craig Taylor

Working to conserve the world's polar bears

PBI supports polar bear research prioritized by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group and by our conservation partners across the Arctic. Working with our chief scientist, Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, and our senior director of conservation, Geoff York, they guide us on the most urgent projects in a warming Arctic. Here are the projects we're supporting right now—and some we've already accomplished:

Polar Bear Population Studies
Based on projected future sea ice losses, two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population could disappear within this century. Population studies track changes as the polar bear's habitat shrinks. This research provides governments with critical data for making decisions—helping to conserve the bears.

Maternal Den Studies
Understanding polar bear denning behavior is crucially important as human activities increase across the Arctic. This research documents key aspects of denning behavior and adds to our knowledge of den habitat selection. The findings will help managers and policy makers establish the best possible guidelines for assuring the welfare of denning bears. It will also help scientists understand the impact of climate change on the critical reproductive function of denning. 

Sensory Studies
What sounds can polar bears hear? What noises disturb them? Do scents play a role in finding mates? Zoo bears help us with studies that would be impossible to conduct on bears in the wild—but have important implications for their wild counterparts.

Body Condition Project
This pilot program is developing tools to gather information on the body condition of polar bears through a combination of visual assessment and digital photographic measurements. Western Hudson Bay is the perfect place to test new methods due to the long-term data on bears in the region. If successful, this project will help scientists obtain baseline condition data on bears in areas that currently lack any formal monitoring.

Western Hudson Bay Coastal Surveys
Aerial population counts just after the ice break-up on Hudson Bay and just before freeze-up provide an index to trends, habitat use, and distribution of polar bears in Western Hudson Bay. Eventually, such coastal surveys may provide an important index to polar bear conservation range-wide, especially as satellite technology improves.

Cortisol Study
Measuring glucocorticoid (GC) levels in polar bears in zoos and in the wild will help scientists establish baseline information on this critical hormone. The data could eventually help biologists monitor stress levels in wild polar bears, including those in poor ice areas without adequate food.

Arctic Documentary Project
PBI, in collaboration with professional photographer Daniel Cox of Natural Exposures, is in the process of documenting and archiving still and video footage of the changes taking place in the Arctic as a result of climate warming and the researchers studying that change. The project will help preserve this arctic record for future generations and bring about awareness of the extraordinary changes taking place in the north. 

Past Projects
From enrichment studies for polar bears in zoos and aquariums to the effect of forest fires on polar bear dens, our completed projects add to our understanding of the world's polar bears and aid policy-makers.

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