Changing Planet

The First Look at Arctic Life on Ice Through the Eyes of a Polar Bear


Seals swim in a cold blue abyss. White paws paddle through the icy water, giving chase. Finally, morsels of frozen, skinned seal float into view as the hunter gnaws down on her meal. 

It’s the first glimpse of life on Arctic sea ice through the eyes of a polar bear.

Footage released earlier this month by the U.S. Geological Survey has proved a technological breakthrough, says Todd Atwood, a biologist who leads the USGS Polar Bear Research Program. But it took a while to happen.

Harsh Arctic weather and freezing temperatures in 2013 had thwarted previous attempts at collecting video from a wild polar bear’s perspective, draining camera batteries and icing up lenses as the bears moved in and out of the water.

But with the help of Mehdi Bakhtiari, one of the engineers who helped develop National Geographic’s Crittercams, Atwood and University of California, Santa Cruz doctoral student Anthony Pagano were able to attach specialized, durable collar cameras to four adult female polar bears in northern Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay this April.

The collars, which remained on the bears for between eight and ten days, collected an estimated 160 hours of footage. And biologists have only just begun to dissect the film.

“It was like a kid unwrapping a Christmas present,” Atwood said of watching the videos for the first time. “Just total excitement.”

Yet the footage has much larger implications than just an up-close-and-personal view of the bears. Pagano is hoping to use the film to better understand polar bears’ changes in body motion—also known as energetic rates—in response to declining sea ice in the southern Beaufort Sea.

Measuring Motion in the Ocean

In addition to sporting a weather-resistant video camera, each collar comes equipped with a sort of fitness tracker, known as an accelerometer. The device measures changes in body motion, recording movement in three dimensions and at very high frequencies. It can tell when a bear is resting, walking, swimming, or hunting seals. And while the cameras stay on the bears for just eight to ten days, the accelerometer will record data for up to a year.

“That’s really where the camera collars came in,” explained Pagano. “It allows us to calibrate these accelerometers with the video information of the wild bear’s [movement].”

In other words, researchers can match up the behavioral data from the camera footage with the movement readings from the accelerometers to determine which activities give off particular frequencies. And they can extrapolate that data to cover the entire year without having to retrieve more video.

“We can start to understand how bears are behaving differently in the summer when sea ice is receding to the north, versus in the winter when sea ice is fairly similar to what it’s been historically,” said Pagano.

One of Pagano’s top goals is to examine how often polar bears are catching seals—and how that might be changing. When sea ice is hundreds and hundreds of miles offshore, are bears still actively hunting and catching seals? Or are they conserving their energy by waiting for seals to return to shallow water? Pagano aims to find out.

New Discoveries

While there has been significant research looking at polar bear population ecology and conservation, less has been published on their behavior.

Polar bears are typically viewed as ambush predators, meaning they don’t spend a lot of time chasing prey animals. So when Atwood and his team sat down to pore over the footage, they were surprised to see one polar bear follow a seal through its hole, diving and resurfacing multiple times.

Another unexpected scene showed a polar bear repeatedly dunking a frozen piece of seal in the sea, like a person might dunk a cookie in milk.

“We’re not sure what [that] means at this point,” said Atwood. “It looks like it could have been playing with the food, or it could [have been] dunking the food to thaw it out and make it a little bit easier to eat.”

Future Footage

Over the past 15 years, scientists have witnessed increased ice fragmentation and reduced summer ice coverage. The upshot has been that polar bears are coming to shore more often than they used to and are spending more time swimming in the summer.

“All these things might affect their energetics, and ultimately [their] population dynamics,” explained Atwood.

Researchers plan on returning to the field next spring to collar more bears and gain insights into their enigmatic lives in one of the world’s least forgiving environments.

Follow Gloria Dickie on Twitter.

Gloria Dickie is an intern at National Geographic Magazine. Her work has appeared in OnEarth and High Country News. Follow her on Twitter @GloriaDickie.
  • omprakash

    it has been an informative article.

  • omprakash

    it has been an informative article.

  • imaculada figueiredo

    Polar Bears … Eyes asking for help.
      It has a look of sadness

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    It truly amazes me the whenever I see one of these “Critter Cams” and the footage they have collected. They provide SO much information and show us what life looks like through their eyes. Just the other day there was a camera strapped to the back of a Lioness they showed her stalking her prey and the actual chase and eventually the kill. It was so fast you almost miss the whole thing if you blinked.
    They really show the “Circle of Life” and how much we are all connected.
    Keep up the good work people! And Thank You National Geographic. I look forward to the next article with Great Excitement!!!

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    It truly amazes me the whenever I see one of these “Critter Cams” and the footage they have collected. They provide SO much information and show us what life looks like through their eyes. Just the other day there was a camera strapped to the back of a Lioness they showed her stalking her prey and the actual chase and eventually the kill. It was so fast you almost miss the whole thing if you blinked.
    They really show the “Circle of Life” and how much we are all connected.
    Keep up the good work people! And Thank You National Geographic. I look forward to the next article with Great Excitement!!!

  • Mojo

    that is so cool i mean how did you get that close that really is amazing now I hope that people will realize how amazing this animal is

  • Mojo

    that is so cool i mean how did you get that close that really is amazing now I hope that people will realize how amazing this animal is

  • Mojo

    These animals are so cute and amazing they are so magnificent that I hope that others will see that to

  • Mojo

    These animals are so cute and amazing they are so magnificent that I hope that others will see that to

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media