Defenders of Wildlife: Polar Bear Lab Internship

Once I was told if someone told my life story, it would be a tale of human persistence. My mother calls it our survivor’s attitude, even though I was never sure I really inherited her kind of strength. I do know that whatever it is called, whatever it is that drives me to work hard and to be heard, I will not be wasting this God-given gift. I will use it to provide high-quality information and, then, to advocate for what is needed and what is right. This summer, I continued on my mission by being a Biological Science Technician with the Polar Bear Team of the United States Geological Survey. It is a fantastic opportunity to contribute to groundbreaking scientific endeavors, while under the guidance of mentors, who helped me understand my contributions in context with the efforts of the scientific community.

The polar bear’s claim to fame, besides selling Coca Cola, is being one of the Arctic’s top predators and designated as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. These bears are rather mysterious creatures; due to their native habitat being very remote, they have historically few human interactions and our gaps in knowledge about this species are substantial.

One of the main concerns biologists who study polar bears have about the Arctic is how the changing availability and conditions of sea ice will impact polar bear health. These changes to the Arctic ecosystem may have an adverse effect on polar bear population size and overall health. This concern is compounded by increasing polar bear-human interactions, pollutants, and emerging pathogens in some parts of the Arctic.

The link between sea ice and polar bear population health is being investigated through the physiological mechanisms that may be directly affected by sea ice conditions. George Durner and Todd Atwood are looking to discover if there is a correlation between the polar bear cortisol levels over the past 30 years and changes in the availability of sea ice habitat. Stress responses may be the main physiological mechanism that drives the varying effects of sea ice conditions on polar bears. This would help elucidate why some populations of bears are thriving in the wake of climate change while others strongly feel the devastating effects.

We are also investigating polar bear health by looking at various analyte levels in Southern Beaufort Sea bears to create a standard of health or normal reference ranges for polar bears. After reference ranges are derived, they will be used to construct a predictive model that will estimate health and reproductive standing in the future as sea ice diminishes. The same type of data (electrolyte levels in spring bears of the Chukchi Sea) is being used to analyze the associations between sea ice conditions and polar bear reproductive health and general body condition.

Research teams use satellite collars to track various species movements all around the globe. However, these collars are not as reliable as they could be. Some researchers estimate about 30% of the collars used on polar bears in the Arctic do not detach, as programmed. Collaring a bear is not seen as more than a nuisance if the collar detaches as programmed, but, concerns about persistent failures to detach could cause the scientific community to stop using this data-collection tool due to concerns over polar bear welfare. Therefore, looking at better degradable hardware for these collars is necessary if we want to continue conducting telemetry studies in the Arctic and learn more about our polar bear populations.

I am proud to say that I have found a kindred tenacity among my mentors and their supporters at the United States Geological Survey. This tenacity is greatly needed as scientists see a more urgent need to learn about and address threats to species, like polar bears. This spirit is needed not only by scientists and technicians, but by everyone: people to advocate for protective regulations in upcoming legislation, to mediate for the benefit of both native/local people and endangered species, to continue to fund research that will inform future approaches to wildlife protections and so much more. It is in our collective efforts that we will be able to make a difference.

The Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) has been a place to foster these attitudes along with other positive attributes. They have taught me their 3 pillars to success: Determination, Effort, and Approach. I believe Determination and Effort may be combined into one characteristic: Persistence. With their aid, I have developed an Approach to life that ensures all this Persistence is not wasted. ANSEP is my community; they have ensured I have a welcoming environment to learn in, to grow in, and to call home.


For this amazing experience, I must thank the people who made it possible. Thank you Dr. Todd Atwood for being an excellent mentor. You were invested in my growth in understanding the scientific community, in the professional realm and personally. I appreciate all the time I spent at the Alaska Science Center because of you. Thank you to Durelle Smith, who helped find my internship position and mentor. These are terrific people at USGS and I am glad you were able to help find me a place among them. I also must thank Karla Dutton of Defenders of Wildlife. Your continued support of Alaska Native people and the polar bear populations will leave a lasting mark for each one’s benefit.

I also must acknowledge a few others who were able to get me here. Beth Spangler and Mikayla Savikko of ANSEP were crucial and were there supporting me the entire time as I went through the process of applying to finishing. Lastly, thank you to the rest of my ANSEP family, who were very encouraging and helpful throughout my experience.


Defenders of Wildlife sponsors one university level ANSEP student each summer — Evangeline worked on with USGS on polar bear research in the summer of 2018.



Wild Without End

Defenders is committed to the sustainable conservation of wildlife for future generations.

Defenders of Wildlife

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Defenders works on the ground, in the courts and on Capitol Hill to protect and restore imperiled wildlife across North America.

Wild Without End

Defenders is committed to the sustainable conservation of wildlife for future generations.

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