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True North

True North

With Indigenous partners, BEARWATCH is shaping how research is conducted in the Arctic.

The hamlet of Gjoa Haven, King William Island, Nunavut.
The hamlet of Gjoa Haven, King William Island, Nunavut. Photography by Stephen Lougheed and Malcolm May

When scientists from Canada’s south consulted Inuit hunters about Arctic research, they learned that many northern residents didn’t like how scientists do research on polar bears.

The Inuit, who had historically been excluded from polar-bear management practice, did not support many of the techniques being used – low-flying planes, tracking with radio collars, and biopsy sampling that caused the bears undue stress.

But the wide-ranging bears provide important information and are key indicators of Arctic ecosystems and climate.

Luckily, there’s a new, non-invasive tool to study them: their scat (or poop). Indigenous partners are compensated to gather samples and share their knowledge of the animals and terrain.

Researchers Stephen Lougheed and Peter Van Coeverden de Groot (both Biology) and Graham Whitelaw (Environmental Studies/Geography & Planning) lead BEARWATCH, a multi-year Genome Canada/Ontario Genomics supported monitoring study across Canada’s Arctic. It has links to other Arctic nations in an effort to contribute to polar bear management across the polar region – and involves many collaborators at Queen’s and other institutions.

“The Arctic is changing, and it seems to be changing faster than even the most pessimistic models anticipated,” Dr. Lougheed said.

Scat contains intestinal cells with DNA that identifies individual bears, which helps the study of population size and where bears are moving.

Samples also reveal bears’ diet and how this varies with time and in different regions. For example, one Nunavut bear population lives mainly on ringed seal, but also on harbour seal, bearded seal, muskox, wolf, Arctic fox, herring gull and ptarmigan. Elsewhere, bears also eat beluga and bowhead whales.

Finally, scat can show the “body burden” of certain chemical contaminants and bits of plastic.

And, Dr. Lougheed adds, BEARWATCH may help give Inuit partners a meaningful “seat at the table.”

“In the past, many Inuit and other Indigenous Peoples have not been fully involved in decision-making,” he said.

Now there are possibilities for this to change, and their work, in collaboration with Queen’s researchers, will have an impact on the future of the Arctic and the animals that live there.

Queen's Alumni Review 2021 Issue 4 cover