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Monthly Archives: May 2014 − News & Stories


The long migra­ti­on of polar bear Kara

Polar bears in Spits­ber­gen are tag­ged with satel­li­te trans­mit­ters every year by the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te. It is pos­si­ble to fol­low some of them on a WWF web­site on their migra­ti­ons.

In many cases, the fema­le bears stay wit­hin a more or less limi­ted area for qui­te some time. But polar bear Kara has recent­ly bea­ten all records: tag­ged in Janu­a­ry 2013 on a gla­cier bet­ween Horn­sund and Ham­berg­buk­ta on Spitsbergen’s east coast, she made a migra­ti­on of an incredi­ble 3703 km wit­hin less than a year. She star­ted towards Nova­ya Zem­lya and then went north towards Franz Josef Land, but so far without going on land any­whe­re. She then went even fur­ther east to Sever­na­ya Zeml­ja, whe­re she final­ly spent some time ashore after having cros­sed the Kara Sea com­ple­te­ly. Kara final­ly went west again to Franz Josef Land, whe­re the sen­der stop­ped trans­mit­ting data. She might have gone into a snow cave to give birth to polar bear babies – may­be she is hap­py mother of two litt­le polar bears by now …?

The fema­le polar bear Kara was, at the time of tag­ging, 13 years old, 2.2 m long and weighs a mode­ra­te 217 kg.

Gene­ral­ly, data from the most recent tag­ging sea­son in spring 2014 may sug­gest that fema­le polar bears have cur­r­ent­ly got less off­spring than in other years: only 3 out of 29 fema­les had cubs in their second year, the nor­mal rate should be some­whe­re near one third. But the total num­ber is too low to ful­ly exclu­de coin­ci­dence.

Mar­king and tag­ging polar bears is con­tro­ver­si­al, as tran­qui­li­zing the bears while fol­lowing them with a heli­co­p­ter is qui­te stress­ful for the ani­mals and the­re are cases when the bear did not sur­vi­ve. This hap­pen­ed in Octo­ber 2013 on Edgeøya (eas­tern Spits­ber­gen) and pos­si­b­ly again in April 2014. In the lat­ter case, howe­ver, the exact cau­se of death is not yet cer­tain. In spring 2014, a total of 73 polar bears have been tran­qui­li­zed and exami­ned in Spits­ber­gen.

The migra­ti­on of polar bear Kara from Spits­ber­gen to the Rus­si­an Arc­tic. Image source: WWF

Migration of polar bear Kara

Source: WWF, Sval­bard­pos­ten

Arc­tic 2014: Lofo­ten, Bear Island, Jan May­en, Spits­ber­gen

The arc­tic sum­mer sea­son 2014 is just about to begin: tomor­row we will start with SV Anti­gua in Bodø, sai­ling to Lofo­ten and then nor­thwards to Bear Island and Spits­ber­gen.

In July, I will be in Jan May­en and then return to Spits­ber­gen for several trips las­ting into Sep­tem­ber. So it will be worth che­cking the pho­tos and triplogs regu­lar­ly!

Lofo­ten: the begin­ning of a long arc­tic sum­mer. Anti­gua in Troll­fjord, 2013.

Antigua, Lofoten

Evo­lu­ti­on of Polar bears

The evo­lu­ti­on of Polar bears is still a mat­ter of sci­en­ti­fic deba­tes. Fos­sils and accord­in­gly data are scar­ce. Tra­di­tio­nal­ly it has been belie­ved that the spe­ci­es is very young, only bet­ween 100,000 and 200,000 years old. Ages put­ting the ori­gin of the spe­ci­es back into mid or ear­ly Plei­sto­ce­ne times have also been sug­gested (see also Spitsbergen-Svalbard.com news from April 2012: Spe­ci­es “polar bear” older than belie­ved so far).

A recent publi­ca­ti­on based on gene­ti­cal stu­dies now sug­gests that Polar bears are sepa­ra­ted from Brown bears sin­ce 479,000–343,000 years ago, which is, wit­hin error limits, in accordance with other pre­vious, but also qui­te recent, stu­dies (see link abo­ve). Evi­dence is thus incre­a­sing that the evo­lu­ti­on of Polar bears goes back to the mid-Plei­sto­ce­ne, the midd­le of the last (and still ongo­ing) ice age, which star­ted about 2.6 mil­li­on years ago.

The ques­ti­on is not only of sci­en­ti­fic inte­rest: If the spe­ci­es was as young as 100,000 years, then the cur­rent warm peri­od would be the first chal­len­ge of this kind in the histo­ry of the spe­ci­es. But if the spe­ci­es is near­ly half a mil­li­on years old, as sug­gested in this most recent stu­dy, then Polar bears have, during their evo­lu­ti­on, alrea­dy sur­vi­ved more than one warm peri­od in the past, which indi­ca­tes an abi­li­ty of the spe­ci­es to sur­vi­ve war­mer con­di­ti­ons. Which is obvious­ly not a gua­ran­tee for the sur­vi­val of Polar bears through rapid chan­ges into even war­mer cli­ma­tes, but sheds some light on the ongo­ing deba­te of Polar bears in a chan­ging cli­ma­te.

Polar bears: their evo­lu­ti­on pro­bab­ly goes several hund­red thousand years back. And the pho­to was taken in Spits­ber­gen, not in the zoo.

Polar bear, Spitsbergen

Source: Cell

Crui­se tou­rism sta­tis­tics in Spits­ber­gen: decli­ning num­bers

In April, the latest sta­tis­tics on crui­se tou­rism in Spits­ber­gen were publis­hed by the Sys­sel­man­nen. They give detail­ed infor­ma­ti­on about the deve­lo­p­ment of this tou­rism sec­tor until 2013. Against com­mon belief, the­re is no indi­ca­ti­on for an incre­a­se of crui­se tou­rism.

The num­ber of big crui­se ships visi­t­ing Spits­ber­gen as one of several parts their rou­te remai­ned almost unch­an­ged (27 in 2013, 28 in 2012). As some of the ships make several trips per sea­son, the num­ber of trips is a litt­le hig­her (33 trips in 2013, 36 in 2012). In con­trast, a signi­fi­cant decli­ne is indi­ca­ted by the num­ber of pas­sen­gers: After an extra­or­di­na­ry incre­a­se in the record year 2012 (42,363 pas­sen­gers) this figu­re went down to 36 257 in 2013. In the years befo­re, the­re was a decre­a­sing trend in the num­ber of trips (from 50 in 2005 to 28 in 2011) as well as in the num­ber of pas­sen­gers (from 32,781 in 2007 to 24,187 in 2011).

The figu­res are pre­sen­ted in the Sysselmannen´s annu­al report on tou­rism. The sta­tis­tics make a dis­tinc­tion bet­ween the big crui­se ships, visi­t­ing Spits­ber­gen as one of several desti­na­ti­ons on their rou­te, and smal­ler expe­di­ti­on ships. In con­trast to crui­se ships, expe­di­ti­on ships tra­vel pri­ma­ri­ly or exclu­si­ve­ly in the waters around Spits­ber­gen. They usual­ly start and end their trips in Lon­gye­ar­by­en. In the last year the sizes of the­se ships varied bet­ween 5 and 300 pas­sen­gers. The cate­go­ry of expe­di­ti­on ships inclu­des small yachts, most­ly in local owners­hip, sai­ling ships like Noor­der­licht and Anti­gua as well as lar­ger ships like Plan­ci­us and Orte­li­us ope­ra­ted by Ocean­wi­de Expe­di­ti­ons or Quest and Oce­an Nova ope­ra­ted by Polar Quest. The num­ber of expe­di­ti­on ships went down signi­fi­cant­ly in 2013 com­pa­red to 2012 from 35 to 24. Here too, the year 2012 was an all-time high. On the other hand the num­ber of pas­sen­gers was lower in 2012 than in 2013. With 9,277 it ran­ged wit­hin the trend of the pre­vious years. 2013 howe­ver with 10,530 the num­ber of pas­sen­gers on expe­di­ti­on ships was for the first time hig­her than in the for­mer record year 2008 with 10,040 pas­sen­gers.

The figu­res do not indi­ca­te a clear­ly defi­ned pic­tu­re. Loo­king at both cate­go­ries ‘big crui­se ships’ and ‘smal­ler expe­di­ti­on ships’ tog­e­ther, the total num­ber of pas­sen­gers went signi­fi­cant­ly down from 51,640 to 46,787, com­pa­red to the record year 2012. The rela­tively strong decli­ne on crui­se ships is accom­pa­nied by a mode­ra­te incre­a­se on expe­di­ti­on ships. A clear over­all trend can­not be iden­ti­fied. The often heard argu­ment, that ship-based tou­rism in polar are­as is gro­wing rapidly and in an uncon­trol­led way, is howe­ver dis­pro­ved by the figu­res, con­cer­ning Spits­ber­gen (this holds true also for Ant­arc­ti­ca in a simi­lar way, see antarctic.eu-news May 2014). Con­si­de­ring the decli­ne in crui­se tou­rism in Green­land sin­ce 2010 such argu­ments must be seen as a myth. Though, in the past they were used to rea­son for restric­ti­ve legis­la­ti­ve amend­ments con­cer­ning tou­rism (see spitsbergen-svalbard.com-news April 2014).

Inclu­ding the land based tou­rism, the total num­ber of tou­rists visi­t­ing Spits­ber­gen has incre­a­sed in 2013, as the Sysselmannen´s report also shows. The num­ber of guest-nights in Lon­gye­ar­by­en clim­bed mar­ked­ly from 84,643 (2012) to 107,086 (2013) and the num­ber of flight pas­sen­gers from 40,153 (2012) to 47,645 (2013). Land based tou­rism is basi­cal­ly con­cen­tra­ted in and around Lon­gye­ar­by­en, with a focus on on snow­mo­bi­le trips fol­lo­wed by dog sledge excur­si­ons and other acti­vi­ties.

Crui­se tou­rism in Spits­ber­gen invol­ves a ran­ge of ships from yachts and sai­ling boats to lar­ge oce­an liners.

Ships Spitsbergen

Source: Sys­sel­man­nen

Spits­ber­gen pan­ora­ma site: now bet­ter and big­ger

The Spits­ber­gen pan­ora­ma site has not only grown qui­te a lot recent­ly, but it is also struc­tu­red a much bet­ter way now. The growth over the last mon­ths was big­ger than expec­ted and made it necessa­ry to impro­ve the struc­tu­re to make it easier to find a pan­ora­ma for a site or to know whe­re a cer­tain pan­ora­ma was taken. Small maps are now being added to indi­vi­du­al are­as to make navi­ga­ti­on easier.

Also the num­ber of pan­ora­mas has incre­a­sed great­ly over the last cou­p­le of mon­ths, and the­re is defi­ni­te­ly more to come!

Enjoy the Spits­ber­gen pan­ora­ma site.

One of many Spits­ber­gen pan­ora­mas: Many smal­ler ice­bergs with fan­tastic shapes and colours are fro­zen in the fast ice of Mohn­buk­ta. The­se images were taken insi­de an ice­berg that had several old meltwa­ter caves.

Record-brea­king num­ber of par­ti­ci­pants at Spits­ber­gen Ski­ma­ra­thon

At this year’s Spits­ber­gen Ski­ma­ra­thon, which took place today (03 May), the num­ber of par­ti­ci­pants was abo­ve 800, so far an all-time record. Amongst the par­ti­ci­pants was Jens Stol­ten­berg, for­mer head of the Nor­we­gi­an government and next gene­ral secreta­ry of Nato.

The ski­ers could enjoy a per­fect ear­ly May day with blue ski­es, sunshi­ne, calm air and tem­pe­ra­tures slight­ly below zero. The Nor­we­gi­an Eldar Røn­ning was, as expec­ted, fas­test man. Amongst the women, Celi­ne Bru­ne-Lie was the first one to com­ple­te the mara­thon distance.

On June 07, mara­thon run­ners from many coun­tries will start for the nort­hern­most regu­lar mara­thon that is held annu­al­ly.

Spits­ber­gen Ski­ma­ra­thon (archi­ve image, 2013).

Spitsbergen Skimarathon

Narwhale´s tusk ser­ves as a sen­so­ry organ

The remar­kab­le and uni­que tusk of the nar­wha­le ser­ves as a sen­si­ble sen­so­ry organ which enab­les the ani­mals to sen­se chan­ges in their envi­ron­ment. Sci­en­tists were now able to con­firm this assump­ti­on.

Nar­wha­les are, tog­e­ther with white wha­les (belugas), part of the Monodon­ti­dae fami­ly. They live in the Arc­tic Oce­an, espe­cial­ly west and east of Green­land, around Spits­ber­gen and north of the Sibe­ri­an coast.

The main cha­rac­te­ris­tic of the nar­wha­le is it´s up to 2,60m long tusk. It usual­ly grows from the males left cani­ne tooth, brea­king through the upper lip in a spi­ral rota­ti­on. In sin­gle cases a second tusk can grow from the right cani­ne tooth. It is also pos­si­ble that fema­le indi­vi­du­als have one or two tusks but this is rather uncom­mon.

In histo­ry the­re were many dif­fe­ring theo­ries try­ing to exp­lain the func­tion of the narwhale´s tusk. Today the­re are two com­mon explana­ti­ons: They ser­ve as a dis­tin­guis­hing attri­bu­te for males, to main­tain hier­ar­chies and as a sen­so­ry organ.

Dr. Mar­tin Nweeia from the Har­vard School of Den­tal Medi­ci­ne (HSDM) is part of an inter­na­tio­nal group of sci­en­tists who stu­dy the func­tion of the narwhale´s tusk. They were now able to con­firm their assump­ti­on that the tusk ser­ves as a sen­si­ble sen­so­ry organ. In pre­vious stu­dies the­re was poin­ted out that the narwhale´s tusk, dif­fe­ring from other mam­mal teeth, is not cove­r­ed by an ena­mel which pro­tects the tooth against exter­nal influ­en­ces. Now the sci­en­tists could reve­al that the outer lay­er of the tusk, the cemen­tum, is porous and that the inner lay­ers con­tain micro­scopic tubes lea­ding to the cen­ter of the tooth. So the mate­ri­al of the tooth is rigid but per­me­ab­le. In the inner core of the tusk, in the pulp, the sci­en­tists could find ner­ve endings con­nec­ted to the whale´s brain. With this struc­tu­re the tusk is sen­si­ble for chan­ges in the exter­nal envi­ron­ment such as chan­ges in tem­pe­ra­tu­re, salt level in the water or other che­mi­cal para­me­ters. Expe­ri­ments could show that the whale´s heart rate chan­ged when the tusk was expo­sed to dif­fe­rent salt levels in the water.

It is sug­gested that the abi­li­ty of the tusk ser­ves the male indi­vi­du­als to find food or to find fema­les and to eva­lua­te their wil­ling­ness to mate.

The sci­en­tists are now inte­res­ted in the ques­ti­on if the nar­wha­les uni­que abi­li­ty to use a tooth as a sen­so­ry organ is an evo­lu­tio­na­ry advan­ce­ment or an abi­li­ty which is left from a for­mer sta­ge of deve­lo­p­ment.

Tusk and skull of a nar­wha­le, stran­ded in Bellsund, Spitz­ber­gen.

Narwal Stoßzahn

Source: BBC Natu­re News

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