"The polar bear is a formidable predator and ranks at the top of the food chain."
Biologist Geoff York is head of Species Conservation for WWF’s Global Arctic, working to protect the animal that has become a strong symbol for climate change. York talked with us about his field work and what it’s like to see polar bears in the wild.
FIVE QUESTIONS WITH GEOFF YORKWritten by Elissa Poma
Q: How did you become a polar bear biologist?
A: I wish I could tell you that I dreamed about working with polar bears as a child, but that was far from my thoughts in rural Indiana! My first biology job was working on Arctic fish in the Beaufort Sea, followed by graduate work on the ecology of glacial stream systems. That led to general marine mammal work and finally to polar bears.
Q: How much time do you spend in the field?
A: It’s a lot less than people imagine – about two months a year. With polar bears, there’s a short window of time when they can be safely and efficiently captured and studied.
Q: When do you go?
A: We used to do one month in the spring and one in the fall. But in the fall we no longer have solid enough ice during the time of year that there’s enough light to make the effort worthwhile.
Q: What does field work entail?
A: We head out to the sea ice [by helicopter] and search for polar bears. Once we locate a bear, we sedate it with a dart gun from the air. We take standard measurements, [such as] weight and length. We collect a vestigial tooth [for determining age], blood, serum, hair, fat and feces. Every bear captured for the first time is tattooed and receives ear tags so that it can be identified in subsequent years.
Q: What’s the biggest myth people have about polar bears?
A: It’s thought that polar bears are fierce predators and mankillers. My experience has been quite different, and most polar bear scientists would say a similar thing.