Polar bears ‘running out of food’

High-tech tracking collars on nine female polar bears have measured the animals’ efforts to find food on the diminishing Arctic ice.

Each bear wore a collar – recording video, location and activity levels – for 8-12 days, while metabolic tracers tracked the bears’ energy use.

This revealed that most of the animals were unable to catch enough prey to meet their energy needs.

The team says wild bears have higher metabolic rates than thought.

GPS video-camera collars were applied to solitary adult female polar bears for 8 to 12 days in April, 2014-2016. These collars enabled researchers to understand the movements, behaviors, and foraging success of polar bears on the sea ice.Image copyrightANTHONY PAGANO/USGS
Image captionThe team tracked nine solitary female polar bears over 8-12 days

Moreover, climate change appears to be having dramatic effects on the Arctic sea-ice, forcing polar bears to move greater distances as they hunt, and making it harder for them to catch prey.

The vision of a polar bear plucking a vulnerable seal off an ice floe is something familiar to wildlife documentary fanatics. Earlier this winter, though, an image of an emaciated polar bear went viral, with many asking if this was the telltale image of climate change.

The authors of this study, published in the journal Science, point out that the animals do now need to travel further to find seals, and that this is likely to be an “important factor explaining declines in their body condition and survival” of polar bears.

Tracking every move

polar bear on sea iceImage copyrightATHONY PAGANO/USGS
Image captionPolar bears use the sea ice to hunt seals and, as it diminishes, have to travel further to find their food

In Spring of 2014, 2015, and 2016, Anthony Pagano, a researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz and his colleagues, set out to track the polar bears’ hunting and survival during this critical season. They captured nine females on the sea-ice of the Beaufort Sea and measured the metabolic rates of each bear using blood and urine samples.

They also fitted the bear with the GPS-camera collars, to record and film their activity.

“We found that polar bears actually have much higher energy demands than predicted. They need to be catching a lot of seals,” Mr Pagano explained.

The extent of Arctic sea-ice, as measured at its minimum in September, is decreasing at a rate of about 14% per decade, which is likely reducing polar bears’ access to seals. And their plight could be exacerbated by the need to alter hunting strategies with the seasons.

In the spring, the researchers explained polar bears are mostly preying on juvenile seals. But later in the year, after the bears’ long summer fast, those young seals are older and wiser, meaning polar bears are not able to catch as many.

“It’s thought that bears might catch a couple per month in the fall, compared to five to 10 per month in the spring and early summer,” Mr Pagano said.

“We now have the technology to learn how they are moving on the ice, their activity patterns, and their energy needs, so we can better understand the implications of these changes we are seeing in the sea-ice.”


If there is one group of people who’ve always known everything about reindeer, it is the Sami, also practitioners of shamanism

Featured image
Photo By: Nasjonalbiblioteket CC BY 2.0

Long before Norway, Sweden, or Finland inscribed the names of their countries on the map of northern Europe, the Sami people roamed the Arctic terrains of Sápmi at the northern tip of the continent. They are traditionally known as the Lapps, or the Laplanders, and their earliest mention in history was in the year 98 A.D. by the famed Roman historian Tacitus. Today, this indigenous group of people count a population of up to 100,000 and live in the territories of four countries, the three Scandinavian ones mentioned above, plus Russia. They are an old people, who were likely the first culture with whom the Vikings traded.

Before modern ways of life imposed themselves over more traditional ones, and before Christianity was preached in ways that deeply affected the lifestyle of the Sami, these people were dedicated in their practice of shamanism and animism.

The shamans of the Sami were known as Noaid, and supposedly they were able to interpret the messages sent by other-worldly creatures, deities, and spirits in which the Sami put in their faith. In times of strife and trouble, the Sami would invoke their deities, helped by the Noaid who would have frequently used a drum to allow such communication.

Their sacred places are called sieidis, usually considered unique land formations where the Sami people gave thanks and offerings to the spirits, considering these places to be the gateways to the world of spirits. A place or object in nature denoted to be a sieidi was considered to be the same as a live being, and it required continual attention such as leaving behind offerings.

But if there is one characteristic, one cultural trait, that the Sami people are perhaps most recognized for it is their way with the reindeer. An originally nomadic group of people, in the old days the Sami would have followed the routes of the reindeer as the herd sought the perfect grazing fields during midsummer. The Sami would have put up tents and stayed close to the reindeer, as the sun never seemed to sink below the Arctic horizon.

Many of the Sami people are still busy carrying out these methods of reindeer herding, but things have inevitably changed. Many Sami also make use of more modern cottages in the forests and mountains, rather than tents. But some Sami people have commented that if herding of reindeer ceases as an activity, that may mean the end of many authentic traditions too. One such example among the Sami families who are reindeer herders has been carving the ancient family marks onto the ears of new-born calves.

The strong tie with this animal can even be felt through the language. The Sami word for “herd” is “eallu,” and is very similar to “eallin,” the word which means “life.” Nowadays, a good majority of Sami do have at least one relative who, in one way or another, is involved with reindeer. The work of reindeer herders is known as “boazovázzi” in the Sami language, and it means “reindeer walker.”

Besides being an important food resource, reindeer are also used for their skin and horns, traditionally providing for craftsmanship and producing new items such as shoes or knives. Traditional Sami clothing is still much praised among the population, a way of dressing that can be used as much for festivities as for work. A traditional outfit may have one dominant color, but more bands of color that adorn the dress are set to contrast the dominant color. Elaborate embroidery can be noticed too, as well as a high collar. Depending on the region, the name of the traditional dress varies, so it would be called “kofte” in Norway or “kolt” in Sweden.

Sami craftsmanship, known as Duoddji, includes such skills as embroidery or knife-making. Local customs that help people live in such cold areas, where temperatures can drop to -40, include filling boots with blister sedge to keep feet warmer.

Traditional Sami singing is known as Joik, and it is one of the oldest singing traditions across Europe. There is no single way of performing Joik singing, but in essence, it is always about expressing the spirit of someone. It can be a person, but also an animal or a specific place in nature.

As with many other aspects of the Sami culture, Joik was forbidden for a period as the Nordic countries attempted to introduce law enforcement during the second half of the 20th century, one example being the so-called “Norwegianization” policies in Norway. Such enforcement meant that Sami people were obliged to attend schools in which they were not allowed to speak their native language. That is far from the case today, as Sami people enjoy reigniting of many of their rights, Joik included. Now there is even a Sami Grand Prix where people can compete with their Joik.

Sami culture in the 21st century is doing well, despite the fact that the policies of the past caused considerable erosion of the Sami language and authentic way of life. While a Sami person who is living the entirely traditional way is not so common, and the vast majority of Sami people appear quite modern, interest in things like Joik or Duoddji, or knowing everything need about a reindeer, is something that no Sami seems to have had lost interest in.

Even the rights of reindeer herding in the countries where Sami people live are reserved only for them, and as records suggest, thousands of people are employed to do just that–herding reindeer on a full-time basis.


The mystery of the Octavius: An 18th-century ghost ship was discovered with the captain’s body found frozen at his desk, still holding his pen

Maritime lore abounds with stories of ghost ships, those ships that sail the world’s oceans manned by a ghostly crew and destined never to make port. The most well known of these tales is that of the Mary Celeste. But one of the eeriest stories has to be the mystery of the Octavius.

The story opens in 1761 with the Octavius docked in the port of London to take on a cargo destined for China. This majestic sailing ship left port with a full crew, the skipper, and his wife and son. They arrived safely in China and unloaded their cargo. They headed back to sea once she was loaded with goods destined for British shores, but as the weather was unusually warm, the captain decided to sail home via the Northwest Passage, a voyage that at the time had not been accomplished. This was the last that anyone heard of the vessel, her crew, or her cargo. Octavius was declared lost.

“Rising full moon.” From the series “Ghost Ship.”

On October 11, 1775, the whaling ship Herald was working the frigid waters off Greenland when it spotted a sailing ship. On nearing the ship, the crew saw that the ship was weather beaten–the sails were tattered and torn and hanging limply on the masts.

The captain of the Herald ordered a boarding party to search the vessel, which they had determined was the Octavius. The boarding party arrived on deck to find it deserted. They broke open the ship’s hatch and scrambled down the ladder into the semi-darkness below, where a terrifying sight met their eyes. They found the entire 28-man crew frozen to death in their quarters. In the captain’s cabin, they found the captain seated at his desk, pen in hand, with the ship’s logbook open on the desk in front of him. The inkwell and other everyday items were still in their place on the desk. Turning around, they saw a woman wrapped in a blanket on the bunk, frozen to death, along with the body of a young boy.

The boarding party was terrified; grabbing the ship’s log, they fled from the Octavius. In their mad flight, they lost the middle pages of the logbook that were frozen solid and came loose from the bookbinding. They arrived back on the Herald with just the first and last pages of the logbook, which were enough for the master of the Herald to determine at least a part of the story of the voyage. The captain of the Octavius had tried to navigate the Northwest Passage, but his ship had become imprisoned in the ice of the Arctic, and the entire crew had perished. The ship’s last recorded position was 75N 160W, which placed the Octavius 250 miles north of Barrow, Alaska.

As the Octavius had been found off the coast of Greenland, it must have broken loose from the ice at some stage and completed its voyage through the passage to come out on the other side, where it met the Herald.  The crew of the Herald were frightened of the Octavius and feared that it was cursed, so they simply left it adrift. To this day, it has never been sighted again.

Author: Hannes Grobe/AWI.CC by 3.0

Author David Meyer has tried to track down the story of the Octavius. In his blog, he considers the idea that the Octavius could be the same ship as the Gloriana, which was boarded in 1775 by the captain of the Try Again, John Warrens. He recorded that he found a frozen crew that had been dead for 13 years and the date of the discovery was spookily similar–November 11, 1762. Are these tales of the same vessel? In the Gloriana story, there is no mention of the Northwest Passage, which remains even today a place of mystery and magic but that adds just that little bit of spice to the tale ofOctavius.

This makes an excellent ghost story for around the campfire. Did the Octavius eventually run aground and sink, or does she still sail the high seas with a crew of skeletons at the wheel?

By Ian Harvey