Tag Archives: Spitsbergen

Scientific study finds polar bears excel at diving, contradicting previous expert opinion

A recent study by Norwegian biologist Karen Lone and colleagues, who tagged 57 polar bear females with sensors around Svalbard, discovered that polar bears can dive to a maximum depth of 13.9m and can swim long distances across open water without rest. Contrary to previous claims, polar bears are excellent divers and their breath-holding ability did not seem to limit how deep they could dive.

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From the abstract of the new paper by Lone and colleagues (Lone et al. 2018):

“Some bears undertook notable long-distance-swims. Dive depths up to 13.9 m were recorded, with dives ≥5 m being common. The considerable swimming and diving capacities of polar bears might provide them with tools to exploit aquatic environments previously not utilized.”

Compare the above statement to one made by Stirling and van Meurs (2015), after describing a 3 minute dive video-taped during an aquatic stalk of a bearded seal, also in the Svalbard area:

“…increased diving ability cannot evolve rapidly enough to compensate for the increasing difficulty of hunting seals because of the rapidly declining availability of sea ice during the open-water period resulting from climate warming.” [my bold]

These two papers really show the difference between using anecdotal accounts as if they were evidence of species-wide physical abilities and doing a scientific study on the physical ability of interest.

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Barents Sea polar bear research in the good old days – 1968/69 – with video

Here is some old footage shot in 1968-1969 of four Dutch researchers – none of whom had any experience with large carnivores – sent to study polar bears at Kapp Lee on Edgeøya (eastern Svalbard). It’s in Dutch so I don’t know what they’re saying but given the choice of music (Beatles, “All You Need is Love”) I can guess the message.

Still, the images are kind of cool, it’s interesting to see how research was conducted at the time by inexperienced personnel. FYI, I began my university studies in 1968, I was not much younger than these students at the time.

Overwintering Spitsbergen 1968-1969 [Uploaded to youtube 21 October 2012; length 45:55]

Description: In the winter of 1968-1969 stayed four Dutch students on the island Edgeøya east of Spitsbergen to do research as to polar bears. During that expedition, this film made by Paul van de Bosch and Hans Sweet and exhibited by the NOS on Dutch television in 1969. 

[Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation background here and here]

I found some additional background that I’ve included below, which shows how naive these young men were, although clearly they had enthusiasm. Dutch researcher Piet Oosterveld was one of the original four on the 1968 expedition and according to a recent news report (see below), will accompany a new expedition to study the effects of global warming. Map below is from the Dutch News story cited below. Spoiler alert: in 1987, Oosterveld was attacked by a polar bear and seriously injured, blamed in part on the rapid increase in polar bear numbers due to their protected status.

Dutch expedition route map
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Ian Stirling’s howler update: contradicted by scientific data

Following up on my last post (Ian Stirling’s latest howler: “the polar bear who died of climate change”), I tracked down some details contained in the original Norwegian news report but which were left out of the articles that spread the story around the world. I also found some pertinent research posted online that appears to be the work of the researchers who captured this bear in April.

Figure 1. The Norwegian newpaper, The Local (Aug. 7, 2013), identifies the location that the bear was found as “a small island near Texas Bar” (marked by the square on the above map) in the very north of Spitsbergen and states it was found on July 7 – details other reports did not bother to include. To have been 250km south of that position in April (when he was tagged), he must have left the ice near the southern tip of Spitsbergen when there was still lots of ice further north.

Figure 1. The Norwegian newspaper, The Local (Aug. 7, 2013), says the bear was found on “a small island near Texas Bar” (marked by the square on the above map) in the very north of Spitsbergen, and states it was found on July 7 – details other reports did not bother to include. [“Texas Bar” is a hut built by a Norwegian hunter in 1927]. To have been 250km south of that position in April (when he was tagged), he must have left the ice near the southern tip of Spitsbergen when there was still lots of ice further north.


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