Polar bear (“nanuq” or ᓇᓄᖅ in Inuktitut) responses to climate change are uncertain due to lack of data on population size and sustainable harvest rates. Populations are usually monitored using mark-recapture surveys that are infrequent and not always supported by Inuit communities. Community-based programs informed by Inuit promise to provide frequent and far less expensive population information. Noninvasive genetic methods of estimating polar bear characteristics (e.g., from shed hair) have also been developed. However, genetic aging techniques are still needed to estimate population trends; current scientific methods of polar bear aging are based on tooth growth patterns.
My research combines Inuit traditional knowledge and genetics to develop new methods of estimating polar bear characteristics. Given their expert knowledge of polar bear ecology and morphology, Inuit hunters are able to consistently identify polar bear characteristics (gender, age, body size, and/or health). By documenting Inuit perspectives and methods of identifying polar bears (e.g., through encounters with individuals and/or footprints), my research aims to develop less invasive, Inuit-based alternatives to monitoring polar bears. Telomeres––repetitive sequences at the ends of chromosomes––may also serve as indicators of aging and can be measured from DNA isolated from samples collected by hunters. Telomeres protect DNA yet shorten with cell division, eventually leading to cell death and hence aging traits. In humans and some animals, telomere lengths have been shown to decline with age. I am interested in how polar bear telomeres vary according to bear characteristics (gender, age, body size and/or health) and with environment.