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Scientists join expedition to study polar bears on Novaya Zemlya

In late summer, polar bears head for the Novaya Zemlya’s northern part, where they will remain until the ice is thick enough for them

TASS, August 17. Scientists of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution will study polar bears on the Cape Zhelaniya, the Severny Island of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. According to director of the Russian Arctic National Park, Alexander Kirilov, the expedition on board the Ivan Petrov vessel left Arkhangelsk on Friday. The scientists will work on the archipelago for about three weeks, he added.

"The group will work on the Cape Zhelaniya, where the national park has a base, for about three weeks," the national park’s director said. "Those will be important studies. Scientists will take samples of pollutants and will tag animals with satellite transmitters’ collars."

In late summer, polar bears head for the Novaya Zemlya’s northern part, where they will remain until the ice is thick enough for them.

"The Cape Zhelaniya is a point, where polar bears wait for winter and ice," the scientist continued. "They wait for the time, when they can walk on ice and hunt seals off it. Presently, they get assembled on the coastal part near the Cape Zhelaniya."

Polar bears on Cape Zhelaniya

The polar bears, living on Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya, belong to the Kara-Barents population. Previous studies on the Cape Zhelaniya were organized in 2011 and 214. Usually, studies in spring are organized on the Alexandra Land Island, where the animals have dens. In 2020, scientists could not tag animals due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It is complicated to quote the number of those predators in the region, the national park’s expert Ivan Mizin told TASS.

"The latest estimations quoted the Kara-Barents population at about 2,500 bears. But that estimation was very rough," he said, adding about 22-31 thousand polar bears live in the Arctic. The Russian Arctic zone is the home for about a third part of that number.

Scientists install collars only on females, as males’ necks are wider than heads and collars fall off the animals, the Severtsov Institute’s expert Ilya Mordvintsev told TASS. The transmitter traces animals, which may cover very big distances or may stay at a certain area for a long time.

Testing polar bears and walruses

In order to install transmitters, scientists inject animals. They also take samples of hair and blood. "We shall take samples to analyze their health and possible pollutants," the expert said. "Those would be tests to see heavy metals, PCB, pesticides, as well as items on the list of what Arctic animals may accumulate from the environment."

Polar bears are at the top of the food chain, and pollutants accumulate in their bodies. This is a mechanism of biological amplification, which means that concentrations of chemicals at each stage of the food chain increase, because the amount of food consumed by a body exceeds its own weight, while chemicals are not completely removed from the body.

The expedition members will also study walruses in the Barents Sea.

"The group on walruses will work at first on the Oranskiye Islands, north of Novaya Zemlya, and later on it will go to Franz Josef Land, where rookeries have been registered earlier. Scientists will also take samples, and will install a few satellite transmitters to follow up the animals," Mordvintsev said.

In August, with support of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Russia), scientists will install 15 photo traps to watch Atlantic walruses on Franz Josef Land, and the Severtsov Institute will install additionally photo recorders on a few islands with rookeries.

Indicator species

Atlantic walruses, like polar bears, are on Russia’s Red Data Book. They are indicator species, and their conditions reflect changes in the environment. According to Kirillov, the studies will give additional information to improve protection of those animals. Both walruses and polar bears are sensitive to the changing climate in the Arctic, especially to the shrinking ice and to the ocean’s pollution. Besides, the increasing numbers of ships along the Northern Sea Route will also affect the animals.

Similar studies in the Kara and Laptev Seas are due in 2021, Mordvintsev said. "There lives a separate population of walruses and a separate population of polar bears, and the expedition will be very interesting, as animals in the Laptev Sea are still understudied." Walruses, living in the Laptev Sea, are also on Russia’s Red Data Book. Scientists do not have sufficient information on them or on Atlantic walruses even to estimate their populations.

The expedition on board the Ivan Petrov will return to Arkhangelsk in mid-October.

The Russian Arctic National Park is Russia’s northernmost and biggest nature reserve, which takes the area of 8.8 million hectares. It was organized on June 15, 2009. The Park includes a northern part of the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago’s Severny Island and the entire Franz Josef Land Archipelago. On Franz Josef Land, the park has the Omega year-round base on the Alexandra Land and a seasonal base on the Hooker Island.