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Scientists Track Polar Bears Using Satellite Imagery

High resolution satellite imagery could be used as a very promising tool for identifying the location of polar bears, say Dr Seth Stapleton from U.S. Geological Survey.


This satellite image shows polar bears on Rowley Island, Nunavut, during late summer, 2012: polar bears – yellow circles; landscape features, including rocks and substrate – red arrows. Image credit: DigitalGlobe.

The application of newly developed techniques to monitor wildlife is now becoming important in the Arctic, where the variable climate as well as remoteness and logistical constraints could block the easy access to that region.

The latest study undertaken by Dr Stapleton’s team was targeted on examination of satellite images of Rowley Island in Foxe Basin, Canada, where a quite number of polar bears were living during the summer ice-free season.

In comparison of the images collected on different dates, scientists were able to distinguish Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) from other light-colored spots. Afterwards, they were engaged in the survey by a helicopter survey to examine how well polar bears were distinguished from objects of similar size and color on imagery. In addition, an aerial survey was also made for the second estimation of bear population on Rowley Island.


Polar bears. Image credit: Brocken Inaglory / CC BY-SA 3.0.

According to Dr Stapleton whose paper was published in the journal of PLoS ONE , The estimated number of bears was nearly 90, based on satellite imagery. That figure was similar to an abundance estimate of 100 bears in regard to an aerial survey conducted a few days earlier. As a result, scientists believed that satellite imagery was a very useful a tool to monitor polar bears on land and it could be also applied to other Arctic wildlife in the future.

Looking at the large-scale application of the technology, scientists foresaw that further developments in automated detection and testing in different landscapes would help them get more information necessary for their future researches.

Journal reference: Stapleton S et al. 2014. Polar Bears from Space: Assessing Satellite Imagery as a Tool to Track Arctic Wildlife. PLoS ONE 9 (7): e101513; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0101513