Andrew E. Derocher talks with
ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about
this month's Fast Moving Front in the field of
Environment/Ecology. The author has also sent along images
of their work.
Article: Polar bears in a warming
AE;Lunn, NJ;Stirling, I
Journal: INTEGR COMP BIOL, 44 (2): 163-176 APR 2004
Addresses: Univ Alberta, Dept Biol Sci, Edmonton, AB T6G
Univ Alberta, Dept Biol Sci, Edmonton, AB T6G 2E9,
Canadian Wildlife Serv, Edmonton, AB T6H 3S5, Canada.
(enlarge): Senior author Andrew
Derocher with a 4 month old polar bear cub caught in
the Beaufort Sea during a population monitoring
Why do you think your paper is highly
The paper was a timely overview and synthesis of the possible impacts of
climate warming on polar bears. The paper has been
used by a wide variety of scientists working on other Arctic marine
mammals, sea ice dynamics, and climate warming, as a global biodiversity
Soon after publication, polar bears became the flagship, or more commonly
termed the "poster species," for climate change. Conservation groups seized
on the findings and the grim predictions for polar bears as their sea ice
habitat rapidly disappears. The paper was central to the body of research
that was used to assess polar bears for listing as a threatened species
under the US Endangered Species Act, which was a hot topic of debate.
Public profile in popular media likely played a role in increasing the
awareness of scientists to the publication. The three authors of this paper
have published extensively on polar bears and thus there was existing
credibility that enabled a forward-looking view on how the species might
respond to climate warming.
Although projecting into the future is a difficult undertaking, the
cautious and logical arguments used in the paper were consistent with the
ecology of polar bears and the principles of conservation biology.
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
The paper is a synthesis of existing studies and takes what we have learned
about the natural history and ecology of polar bears and puts this
information into a context of habitat loss brought about by climate
warming. The work builds on the experience of the three authors (Andrew E.
Derocher, Nicholas J. Lunn, and Ian Stirling) who, cumulatively, have spent
over 75 years studying the ecology of polar bears.
Would you summarize the significance of your paper
in layman's terms?
Polar bears are threatened in the longer term by a warming climate directly
due to loss of annual sea ice which is their primary habitat. The paper
examines a possible range of effects and the symptoms that a top-level
carnivore would be expected to show from large-scale habitat loss.
How did you become involved in this research and
were there any particular problems encountered along the way?
"The paper was central to the body
of research that was used to assess polar
bears for listing as a threatened species
under the US Endangered Species Act, which
was a hot topic of
The paper is a natural product of long-term population monitoring that all
three authors have been involved with. The major difficulty in writing this
paper was finding the balance between what we know about the ecology of
polar bears and what we think might happen in the future. Nobody has a
crystal ball and predicting the future can be a fool's game, so the work
had to rigorously support each component and treat them more as hypotheses
rather than predictions.
Where do you see your research leading in the
Long-term monitoring of polar bear populations provided the basis for this
publication and the three authors have continued to pursue this as a
primary research goal. Unfortunately of the 19 populations of polar bears
worldwide, only four are monitored with any regularity that allows insight
into their status. It is deemed crucial for long-term conservation planning
to establish another two or three monitored populations where basic
research can examine the ecology of polar bears as the climate warms.
Do you foresee any social or political implications
for your research?
The publication was the foundation of the threatened
species listing in the United States and the listing of this species is
still opposed by some special interest groups. As more species are
examined for threats posed by climate warming, the polar bear will be
viewed as the test case for climate warming impacts on biodiversity. The
importance of this issue has only begun and it will have far reaching
implications on society and thus on our political institutions.
Andrew E. Derocher, Ph.D.
Chair, IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Polar Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival
Keywords: possible impacts of climate warming on
polar bears, threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act, Arctic
marine mammals, sea ice dynamics, climate warming, global biodiversity,
climate change, studying the ecology of polar bears, top-level carnivore,
large-scale habitat loss, climate warming impacts on biodiversity.