Scientists are harnessing advanced technologies such as AI, detection systems, and drones to study and conserve polar bears, revealing promising solutions for the species in the face of climate change.
Polar bears, the majestic Arctic predators, face increasing threats from climate change, pollution, and commercial activities. As global warming accelerates, the shrinking sea ice has made it harder for polar bears to hunt for seals, their primary food source. Although there are approximately 26,000 polar bears across the Arctic regions, experts worry that they could vanish entirely by 2100 due to climate change. This alarming prospect has led scientists to seek innovative ways to study and conserve the species. Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), detection systems, and drones have emerged as vital tools for gaining insights into the lives of these elusive creatures.
Artificial intelligence has played a pivotal role in analyzing photographic data of polar bears captured from aerial platforms. AI models have been developed to recognize and track polar bears in photos, significantly enhancing the efficiency and accuracy of data processing. This technology enables scientists to monitor polar bear populations and assess their well-being, providing essential information for conservation efforts.
Drones have also revolutionized the way researchers study polar bears. By capturing images from above, drones offer a less disruptive method of observing polar bears compared to traditional approaches, such as using helicopters. The reduced disturbance to local wildlife allows for more accurate assessments of the bears’ behavior and habitat, crucial for developing effective conservation strategies.
Tracking devices have long been employed to study polar bears, but conventional methods like neck collars and implants pose challenges for researchers. Neck collars are unsuitable for male polar bears, which have smaller heads and thicker necks, while implants require invasive procedures that can be risky for the animals. To overcome these limitations, researchers have developed non-invasive methods for attaching tracking devices to polar bears.Traditional tracking methods such as neck collars and implants pose challenges, leading researchers to develop non-invasive attachment methods. Innovators at 3M have designed a “burr on fur” approach, using three bottle brushes to secure a tracking device to a sedated bear’s fur. Alternatively, a method inspired by hair extension techniques uses a pentagonal design, threading a fishing leader loop through five metal tubes, lassoing the bear’s hair, and pulling it back through before clamping it securely. Both devices are being tested in Churchill, Manitoba, and in zoos and aquariums.
“Bear-dar” detection systems are being developed to alert communities of approaching polar bears, aiming to reduce human-bear conflicts. Researchers are building systems from scratch or adapting military technology, with AI models identifying approaching bears. Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) is a promising technology for locating polar bear dens, overcoming limitations of forward-looking infrared imagery (FLIR). SAR, attached to an aircraft, emits electromagnetic waves and records the bounce back, creating a radar image of the landscape below.
AI is also being used to count polar bears in aerial photos, providing valuable insights into the species’ well-being in the face of climate change. Drones are being tested for capturing high-resolution images and gathering data, as they are safer, more affordable, and less disruptive to wildlife than helicopters. To study polar bears’ energy expenditure on land and in water, researchers have developed a polar bear treadmill and swim chamber, revealing that bears use more energy swimming than walking, which could impact their chances of survival as sea ice diminishes.
Understanding how polar bears are adapting to climate change is crucial for conservation efforts and for the health of the planet. Actions to help polar bears maintain their sea ice habitat will also help humans protect our future.