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Tracking bears to track climate change

Tracking bears to track climate change

[polar bear]

Researchers Stephen C. Lougheed (Biology), Peter Van Coeverden de Groot (Biology), and Graham Whitelaw (Environmental Studies) have been awarded $9.5 million in total partner cash and in-kind contributions – including $2.4 million from Genome Canada’s Large-Scale Applied Research Project competition – to monitor impacts of environmental change on polar bears. The project, entitled BEARWATCH, will combine leading-edge genomics and Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to develop a non-invasive means of tracking polar bear response to climate change.

“The polar bear is an iconic animal that has seen its habitat and ecology markedly impacted by climate change,” says Dr. Lougheed, the principal investigator on the project. “Based on non- invasive work we have done over the last decade with our colleagues at the Hunter and Trapper Organization [HTO] in Gjoa Haven in Nunavut, we viewed this funding call as an exceptional opportunity to work with Inuit of the Arctic to achieve more informed insights, via the monitoring of polar bears, as to how climate change is impacting the region.”

The polar bear is an iconic animal that has seen its habitat and ecology markedly impacted by climate change.

The current primary method for monitoring polar bears is through aerial censusing of populations every 10 to 15 years. This project allows for broad-scale, real-time monitoring of polar bears across the entire Canadian Arctic. The team will develop a toolkit that can be used to track individual bears through epithelial cells shed from their gut during defecation. By analyzing these cells and the bears’ feces, researchers can gather information on their health, recent diet, contaminants they’ve been exposed to, and reproduction. The researchers hope to develop a pan-Canadian picture of polar bear health and genetic diversity for use as a baseline against which future climate change impacts can be measured.

“We might catch a single bear multiple times in different years or distinct locales. We will thus be able to evaluate change in their health and diet,” says Dr. Lougheed. “For example, we can tell what it has been eating recently – whether it has been out on the sea ice eating seals, or eating terrestrial prey or fruit of some Arctic plants. We will also be able to track bears over time and obtain information on bear movements.”

For more information on Genome Canada or the Large-Scale Applied Research Project competition, visit genomecanada.ca.

Given the degree to which local Indigenous peoples are affected by climate change in the north and the importance of the polar bear in Inuit culture, Dr. Lougheed emphasizes the importance of including their insights and ensuring they have an active role in this research. “Increasingly, northern peoples want hands-off, non-invasive means of tracking wildlife, which is what we’re trying to do here,” he says. “Working with the northern Canadians, through the marriage of high-end genomics with their TEK, as well as working with them in a truly collaborative fashion, is the most important piece to this project.”

[cover of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 1, 2017]