How Do Environmental Scientists Use Technology to Track Polar Bears?

September 11, 2023
David Sunnyside

With grim predictions that polar bears could disappear from the planet by the end of this century, it’s essential that scientists figure out how these large, top predators roam their massive territories and manage to survive in a rapidly melting Arctic. Typically, a bear's ear or collar is fitted with a transmitter that broadcasts signals to researchers, allowing them to track the animal’s movements via satellite. This data is critical to understanding how climate change affects the endangered animals and determining whether conservation efforts are having an impact.

But biologists have run into a big obstacle when tracking polar bears: they are notoriously difficult to work with. They are elusive, cover huge territories and spend long periods of time away from their dens or on the ice. They are also prone to attacking researchers who attempt to capture them to weigh, measure and take samples. To do that, researchers must sedate bears, and the process is dangerous, expensive and invasive.

One solution to this problem is to use motion sensor cameras that activate when they detect a bear. But finding a bear and then setting up the camera can be challenging, especially when the sea ice is thinning.

That’s where BJ Kirschhoffer comes in, who runs field operations for Polar Bear International. A White Bear Lake, Minnesota native and son of Jon Kirschhoffer, an advanced research specialist at Maplewood-based 3M, BJ came up with the idea to use sticky materials — think Post-it notes or Scotch tape — to make a tracker that can latch onto polar bear fur, stay put during the rigorous activities they undertake and still transmit information on their movements.

David Sunnyside
Co-founder of Urban Splatter • Digital Marketer • Engineer • Meditator
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