Polar Bears Can Be Counted Remotely through Satellite Images

Jul 18, 2014 10:39 AM EDT | Jordan Ecarma

Scientists have been tracking polar bears living in the remote Arctic through satellite images, researchers said in a new PLOS ONE study published this month.

Led by Seth Stapleton, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota, a team of U.S. and Canadian researchers numbered the bears by looking at satellite images and then compared the figure to the count made from a helicopter during the same period, the CBC reported.

The two numbers were remarkably close, the scientists wrote.

"I'm very happy with the results," said Nicolas Lecomte, who worked on the study as a Nunavut government biologist, as quoted by the CBC. "Seth and myself, we were really surprised it worked so well."

The new approach could be key to monitoring bears in remote areas in the Canadian High Arctic and other places where they are difficult to reach. Another problem is disturbing polar bears and other wildlife with the loud, low-flying aircraft used while tallying the animals.

The researchers counted the bears by comparing satellite images from two different days, essentially numbering the white spots on the screen that moved.

"Really, what we were looking for are white spots on the [brown] landscape that changed between the two sets of images," Stapleton told the CBC in a Skype interview.

"I think between Michelle and myself we spent combined about 100 hours staring at a computer screen looking for those little while dots that changed between images," he recalled.

Biologist Lecomte believes that polar bears and other wildlife will eventually be tracked through a combination of regular satellite counts supplemented with more difficult and expensive aerial surveys every few years.

"I'm very hopeful we can expand that to other species in the north--seals, caribou, muskox--there's a lot of hope for that," he said.

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