The first-ever point-of-view footage of polar bears living in the Arctic shows us the perspective of a female bear as she violently mauls a seal, goes for a swim, and checks out a potential suitor. Polar bears: They’re just like us.
The video teaser comes by way of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Polar Bear Research Program, which monitored four female polar bears by video collar earlier this spring. Now that the team has more than 150 hours of footage to study, they’re tasked with spotting polar bear behaviors linked to the crisis of melting summer sea ice.
The Polar Bear Research Program, which has been studying bears in the Arctic since the early ’80s, set out to see how disintegrating habitats might affect polar bear “energetics,” lead researcher Todd Atwood explains. “What we’ve noticed over [the last 15 years] is that polar bears are increasingly participating in these long-distance swimming events. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of bears coming to shore over time,” Atwood tells Co.Exist. If the researchers then discover that polar bears spend more energy swimming through fragmented bits of sea ice but consume less prey, it could be a troubling sign for the survival of the species.
Atwood and his colleagues in Anchorage were awed by the vivid detail of polar bear life at sub-zero temperatures when they viewed the footage for the first time. They had also started tracking the females during the breeding season, when males were trying to win over new mates. That meant that the video not only captured the polar bears’ graceful dives and sophisticated hunting skills, but also rare footage of polar bear pair bonding and courtship not normally observed in the wild.
“I was almost dumbstruck. It was just amazing to see these animals seeming like they were playing together and just being polar bears,” Atwood says. “I sent out a bulk email, and immediately people were viewing the files. You just heard people laughing out loud and going, ‘Oh man.’ And everybody was huddling in the hall. It was just kind of one of those moments where you know you’ve seen something special. But it’s probably not that special to polar bears.”
Getting the video collars to work in the first place was a special ordeal of its own. The first time the researchers tried it, the cameras froze. This time, however, they worked with a consulting firm called Exeye to develop collars with GPS, video, and accelerometers that could hold up in -25 degrees Fahrenheit. So the footage from the adventure will not only provide them with arresting images, but also finely tuned data on polar bear movements throughout the day.
Atwood notes that polar bears are particularly smart and curious animals, and that researchers have only looked through a tiny fraction of the footage captured. “We’ll likely see even more interesting behaviors that we’re not even aware of,” he says.