The expanse of snow dunes lies undisturbed under the bright spring morning. Suddenly a black nose breaks through the surface and twitches in the air. A white furry head with two button shaped eyes soon follow. A polar bear surveys the new day with curiosity. After a few minutes of sussing out her surroundings for imminent threats, she lifts her now lean body—that was pregnant and plump with food only a few months before—through the hole in the snow and pulls herself out. After a quick shake to get the snow off her body, this bear sets out from her den, unknowingly walking straight towards a camera-trap that’s surreptitiously recording her every movement.
In honor of International Polar Bear Day, we would like to share the series of images of this new mother emerging from her den taken by the camera-trap set by our friends at Polar Bear International (PBI).
Typically, in late fall, pregnant polar bears tunnel into coastal snow banks and create “maternal dens.” These dens of ice and snow are refuges for them while they give birth to their cubs and nurture them through their vulnerable first months. Maternal dens also provide the mother and cubs with a secure environment during the winter, and a safe space where the cubs can get acclimated to their arctic environment, develop their motor skills, and increase their body weight and size. Basically, it’s where cubs can get stronger and become equipped to face the world.
Every year, PBI’s research team spends six weeks in the spring studying polar bear mothers and cubs in northern Alaska as they emerge from their dens. Their study is led by Dr. Tom Smith of Brigham Young University and seeks to inform the scientists of some pertinent questions such as: when do polar bears typically emerge from their dens with cubs? How long do families hang around the den before heading to the sea ice to hunt seals? How sensitive to disturbances are denning polar bears? The answers to these questions and others will provide PBI with a broader picture of polar bear denning behavior and inform their ongoing efforts to protect these iconic bears.