Tourism in Antarctica……dot dot dot

Holger Leue/Lonely Planet Images/Getty

Increased tourism could be contributing to plastic pollution in Antarctica.

So this past week I was sitting on a plane headed to a wedding in Wisconsin. I was sitting next to a guy about my age and after about the first hour or knitting and reading we ended up starting to chat. I found out that he was a project coordinator for some kind of vacation site in Antarctica. At first he mentioned that he spends a lot of time in Antarctica which I immediately thought, ‘cool, what do you study?’ but was disappointed and further confused to find out he didn’t study anything, nor did he help coordinate research at all. People just travel to Antarctica for vacation now……

So I was thinking, hmmm, well if people are going to travel to Antarctica for the all so reasonable price of $25,000 for one week to sit around ice (down from the original price of $45,000) (US funds…..) and the money went towards research and maintaining other camps in Antarctica like the penguin research station ( that would be great!

At Jerry Kooyman and Paul Ponganis’ field camp at Cape Washington, Antarctica, curious emperor penguins approach.

Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UC San Diego

So I went online and tried to figure this out. Who is making the profit from these trips? If these organizations are giving back at all and how much? After a little digging and chatting with the staff at a research facility I am visiting currently, we found this:


Some places are better left alone. Cruise ships reaching Antarctica and even now crossing the Northwest Passage with increasing frequency will have huge impacts on Inuit communities, noise pollution for wildlife like migrating whales, not to mention the carbon footprint.

Check out this noise pollution TED talk about whales:


I have yet to find anything indicating the exact contributions of these companies to research other than the vague statements that a percentage of profits are contributed to research expeditions or that they help with logistics for other research camps….what does that even mean and what percentage are we talking about here?

For the ripe price of $73,000.00 USD for 9 days to see penguins, what do you get? Click the box above the image to enlarge.

You don’t even really need to be in that good a shape to get around with all the catering you get in these conditions……did you know that a huge plane goes into each of these camps every 3 days so the vacationers can have fresh lettuce and homemade fresh baked bread???? But hey, those will be some pretty incredible photos right? So if you MUST MUST travel to Antarctica as a tourist, shop around to the right company with the least negative affects on the environment and the greatest contribution of profits to research. Just like doing research and purchasing products that are better for the environment like coffee and free-range chicken eggs, think twice about who you book your trip with. Or better yet, some places are better left alone and just purchase BBC Planet Earth and BBC Frozen Planet.

Other good reads:



Identity crisis: greater snow geese altering migratory pathways and following their ‘lesser cousins’

A Hybrid is the result of two species successfully having offspring; one example is the liger, a cross between a tiger and a lion.

There are numbers of animals that are a product of two species becoming one; and often an illegitimate one, unable to reproduce. Hybrids in nature are not entirely uncommon, particularly within waterfowl communities.

Here is a Snow Goose, and what is likely a Cackling Goose (subspecies of Canada goose) Someone even blogs about it;

For subspecies of the Canada Goose see

Arctic Facts: How many kinds of geese are there in the Arctic?

What stressors occur in the environment or individual physiology that would encourage hybridization? How important is this kind of genetic mixing? Is is good, bad, both? I started thinking about these questions when a band recovery came across my desk by email. I covered the hunter’s name to protect his identity but this report indicates a Greater Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens atlantica) was harvested in Arkansas during the Spring Conservation Hunt this past February 2017.

Compare the location of the recovery to the most commonly sourced location for wintering and breeding areas of Greater Snow Geese.

Modified from the map obtained through Canadian Wildlife Federation

So what was this bird doing over there? After consulting with goose biologists much more experienced than myself, I realized that this isn’t the first time a Greater Snow Goose has been harvested so far from their ‘proper’ wintering area. Band recoveries indicate that many individuals have followed their Lesser Snow Goose ‘cousins’ (Chen caerulescens caerulescens) further south west. If you look at the outlier band recoveries for the Greater Snow Goose (map below on left) and compare those to the Lesser (on the right) it would seem those individual Greaters are overlapping in Lesser Snow Goose wintering areas.


As Snow Goose numbers increase in North America, a conservation and agriculture nightmare (in some opinions) breeding colonies are merging, expanding and in general becoming closer in proximity to one another on the Arctic tundra. Massive flocks of birds merge in areas heading south. Specifically, there is now a good overlap of contact in the northern part of Foxe Basin and on the northwest end of Baffin Island between the Mid-continent Lesser Snow Geese and Greater Snow Goose population. There is mixing, in particular, of young and failed breeding birds during early migration. “It is likely that this bird and others like it form an association with a bird or birds (flock) from the predominantly Lesser Snow Goose stocks and then follow them to the mid-continent wintering areas.“-Snow Goose Biologist. It is also unknown if there is direct mixing between individuals with Lessers and Greaters producing young.

Overlapping or even direct mixing of these species could mean several things; including extensions of the wintering areas between the two species, hybridization, and with that alterations in behaviour. We don’t currently know the long term consequences of these geese mixing but it definitely highlights the importance of banding operations and long term research studies, particularly in the Arctic.





Skinny polar bears and my first-hand account of Climate Change

I saw a polar bear in a zoo once. When I was a lot younger. I remember thinking, “huh, he isn’t doing anything, he is just lying there. This is kind of cool but kind of boring.” What I didn’t know then was this bear in the zoo was very fat; likely over-fed. He was healthy and also probably bored out of his mind. But healthy none-the-less. I’m constantly learning about our Arctic system and about the wildlife that live there and polar bears in the Arctic are neither over-fed, nor boring. Yes, polar bears sleep a lot but they are not boring.

A resting polar bear.

In 2010, Smith and colleagues published a paper on polar bear diets and how they are changing. These research scientists report that polar bears are seen earlier during the summer more and more in association with early ice break up. We all know the climate change stories indicating warming temperatures affecting ice and this ice break up forces polar bears hunting for seals to come ashore. These bears are having their hunting season cut short, and well, they are not over-fed and are looking for food. Arctic-breeding birds such as Common Eider and several goose and gull species fall subject to predation as bears travel nest to nest eating eggs. It can have devastating effects on reproduction for colony nesting birds. The scary part is that these observations reported in this 2010 paper were seen back as far as the year 2000, and frequency of observations have been continuously growing for the past 16 years.

Sow and her cub crossing the Nunavut Tundra, July 2016. Photo credit: Lena Ware

Evidence of climate change has been witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people, in many different ways. Severe weather events such as hurricanes causing flooding, or expansive uncontrolled forest fires alter the lives of people forever. This summer I witnessed climate change first hand for the first time. I saw skinny polar bears.

Bear print in the goose colony, Southampton Island Nunavut July 2016. Photo credit: Kevin Young
Bear print in the goose colony, Southampton Island Nunavut July 2016. Photo credit: Kevin Young

Now, what does a skinny polar bear even look like? I didn’t know a lot about bear ecology nor about their physiology. I was lucky to spend some time with biologists actually studying polar bears and bombarded them with questions. Belly fat on a healthy bear coming inland from a winter of eating seals should be 3 or more inches thick. From far away it would be hard to tell how thick a bear’s belly fat is, but one researcher told me a healthy walking bear should jiggle like a massive ton of Jello.

“Southampton Island (Nunavut), now hosts 940,000 nesting geese. Hungry polar bears are finding their eggs. In 2004, on the Bay of God’s Mercy, a long polar bear over the course of two weeks, consumed the entire contents of 400 goose nests. In 2006, the field team at Coats Island watched bears systematically ransacking a goose colony, targeting nests, devouring eggs. In 2010, James Leafloor from Environment Canada, conducted an aerial survey of nesting geese on Southampton and Coats Islands, counting ‘about 29 polar bears, many of them in snow goose colonies, far inland from the coast’. A summer diet of Arctic char and berries has proven no substitute for ringed seals. Polar bears may kill a ringed seal between one and three times a week. It’s hard to imagine how tiny goose eggs, no matter how plentiful or rich in protein and fat, can fully substitute for 100-pound ringed seals and their blubbery pups, compensate for a seal hunt now reducing each year, or offer a long-term reprieve for animals turned toward extinction as the sea ice retreats. Karyn Rode from the U.S. Geological Survey and her colleagues, analyzing this question from previous studies across the Arctic, are finding that based on data in western Hudson Bay, bird eggs might best offset only a day or two of time bears now lose foraging at sea.” -Deborah Cramer in her book; The Narrow Edge, Chapter 11 pg 198.

The beginnings of a Cackling goose nest. Photo credit: Lisa Kennedy
The beginnings of a Cackling goose nest. Photo credit: Lisa Kennedy

It’s obvious that eggs are not the solution for hungry bears and it’s a bit unnerving that such an iconic animal for North Americans and both resource-based and spiritual symbol for northern Inuit is in trouble. As a graduate student still learning about the Arctic environment and pursuing research, I found myself struck by the evidence of changing ice conditions and the impact it can have on polar bears. I read about it, saw it on the news and heard about at conferences, but it never really seemed as real than when I witnessed it firsthand. It will and has secured my pursuit as a biologist indefinitely.

Photo credit: Kevin Young
Photo credit: Kevin Young

Arctic-breeding shorebird Research, Environment and Climate Change Canada

Back from another eventful and bird-filled summer on the Canadian Arctic tundra, and back with an internet connection, I wanted to feature this newly released video featuring Dr. Paul Smith, my supervisor with Environment and Climate Change Canada. He provides some interesting material in reference to how long distance migrants such as arctic-breeding shorebirds may be responding to climate change.

and also see: Canadian Environment Week



Cholera found in Migrating Snow Geese

Over the past several decades, anthropogenic effects (human activity) are increasingly tipping the balance in favour of some species over others in North America; and heavily one-sided dominant forms of competition between species have the potential to explain global declines in species’ populations and reduced global diversity.  With agricultural intensification, land development, and human waste management, some species flexible to changing landscapes are likely influencing their community structure through disproportional abundance, which allows them to compete more aggressively for space and food resources. Effects of both invasive species and disproportional growth in select species is a global concern and has been for several decades (Garrott et al. 1993).

Invasive European Starling populations out compete other native birds for space and food resources.
Invasive European Starling populations out compete other native birds for space and food resources.

If you are a hunter, or an avian biologist then you definitely have hard or seen first hand the exponential population increases in North American Lesser Snow Geese. Flocks of millions of birds move through the mid-continent twice a year either heading to or away from their arctic tundra breeding grounds. Biologists have been monitoring this growth pattern and implementing game management strategies.

Flock of Snow Geese

Snow geese population numbers cannot increase to infinity obviously. At some point something has to give; habitat space, food resources, disease, or a combination of those things. For the past few years I’ve been interested in seeing how the snow goose populations are changing and projected to change based on research by a number of fantastic goose biologists in both Canada and the USA.

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow biologist whom is heavily immersed in the game management and hunting community. An American-based hunting outfitter had contacted him regarding several dead fully intact snow geese found in an open field. Over several days ~50 birds were seen dead, many with a mucous coming from their nostrils. This hunting trip was located in Saskatchewan for the spring hunt. Long story short and a long email thread later, I had contacted one goose biologist, who contacted multiple other biologists and a Curator at the University of Saskatoon was interested in receiving the dead carcasses for inspection and testing.

This outfitter company graciously delivered the birds to the University.

As it turns out, these dead birds were confirmed for Cholera. This is an unusual and rare appearance of this lethal disease in this species and particularly in Canada. As populations grow, densities of colony species or socially aggregate species effectively can transmit disease between each other or get infected through common sources of water or food.

As a biologist, this finding was exciting. And I quickly realized the power of a network within our avian community. Once the formal report for this disease comes out, I will provide the link here.


Arctic Facts: Bio-luminescent (glow in the dark) zooplankton during the arctic night

The Polar Night. Anywhere North of the polar circle line for a period of the year it’s over 24 hours of darkness. No sun. Culturally, communities living in places where there are periods of total darkness for days, week, months; are usually sleeping, spending a lot of time indoors and in a way, kind of regenerating for the polar day when it becomes 24 hour daylight and people are out ‘making hay while the sun shines’.

Like the communities of people, it was thought that marine productivity slows greatly during these times with no sunlight. My gosh, who wouldn’t get lazy and sleepy with all that darkness and end up watching endless Netflix shows and or knitting baby sweaters. That’s what I would do. Scientists in Norway studied the activity patterns of zooplankton during these polar nights. But not just any zooplankton; GLOW IN THE DARK ZOOPLANKTON.

Check this out!!!!

Photos courtesy of


By monitoring and quantifying their bioluminescent activity throughout a longitudinal study by season and time of day, it was determined that not only are various zooplankton active during these polar nights but their flashes are unique to them by species. As our optic technology continues to improve, use of certain (complicated devices I know nothing about nor could understand) forms of data collection may allow us to determine how these northern communities of zooplankton are changing in response to reductions in arctic ice, climate change etc.

Something I definitely did not know included in this paper noted some species of seabirds (black guillemot, kittiwake, fulmar, little auk and glaucous gull) are overwintering in Arctic fjords (Weslawski et al. 1991) -cited in this paper see below. These birds may use the visual glow of the zooplankton to locate their food, or perhaps as a proxy to finding fish that are attracted to their glowing zooplankton prey. The only thing missing from this paper was a couple good photos! I’m sure people would love to see these glowing zooplankton but none appeared in the manuscript.

2014. Polar Biol. Johnsen et al. Glowing in the dark: discriminating patterns of bioluminescence from different taxa during the Arctic polar night

For other interesting species that bioluminesce, see this new find; glowing sharks! This TED talk has been featured as a late. Click the link to watch the TED talk about glowing sharks.



Arctic Facts: Orca Whales in Alaska

Northern travel (despite the lack of warm sun, white sandy beaches and outdoor pool swim up bars) has by far produced the best experiences I have ever had. You truly appreciate our northern Sub-arctic and Arctic systems when you get to see them with your own eyes. Orca whales have been in the media quite a bit recently. Sea World has advertised they are now halting their orca whale breeding program and will no longer put on public shows using orcas as their main attraction.

Remaining whales will stay in captivity because, as Adam Sandler would say in 50 First Dates, they are “too big of a pansy to defend yourself in the wild”. And one might wonder if this is true.


photo credit:

I had my first wild orca whale encounter while on a fishing boat in the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska near Cordova. I was spying through my binoculars looking for marine birds (the fishing was a bit slow and I don’t have much of an attention span), and all to my wandering eyes should appear but a giant black dorsal fin! “WHALE!!!!!” (jumping and pointing happened here).

After watching a small pod of whales and managing to get a few nice photos (taken not by me because I was too excited and swinging my head around to see all 360 degrees at one time), I realized how wonderful and special it was to see orcas in their own habitat, interacting with one another.

A few short days later, a biologist and graduate student from Anchorage gave a public talk to the town of Cordova about orca whales, their social dynamics, feeding patterns and population status since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

photo credit:

Here are some interesting facts about Orca whales:

Orcas are extremely social and pods are constantly in communication both within the pod and between pods using forms of clicks, whistles and calls both for chatting and for detecting food sources. Within each pod orcas have their own dialect, specifically learned by the breeding female. Which brings us to our next cool fact, orca whales are led by the oldest female. All male offspring never leave their mother their entire lives! AKA the ‘ultimate momma’s boy’

When a breeding female dies, usually her direct male offspring quickly pass away shortly after, though the exact reason for this is not known.

Orca whales have very specific diets; for example, you are either a fish-eater, a mammal (seal) eater or a shark eater. Interestingly, if you bring a mammal-eating orca into captivity and try to feed it fish, it doesn’t recognize fish as food and could starve. Usually then, orcas in captivity learn how to recognize foods (fish or scraps) by watching and learning from other orcas.


Because of the need to sneak up on mammal prey (they are a little smarter than salmon and their density is usually a lot lower) orcas hunting mammals do not use echolocation and sonar the way fish-eaters do. And because they move around a lot, they are labelled as transient pods. Resident pods have fairly predictable movement patterns and stay in target areas for longer periods of time. Transient orcas always know if there are resident pods nearby from the frequent vocalizations within the resident pod and always steer clear; noisy resident pods scare away all the food.

As it turns out, the photos taken of the pod we observed made it into the hands of the biologist working on Prince William Sound orcas and low and behold, he could identify each individual exactly! Some dorsal fins have notches in them from what we speculate could be from fighting and that makes them unique enough to identify. This pod was a transient pod whose numbers having been declining for decades.

Photo by: Nick Docken
Photo by: Nick Docken

The original A1 transient pod of orca whales consisted of ~30 individuals in the 1980s. Unfortunately, this pod was observed swimming directly through the oil slick soon after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Respiring oil has a number of physiological implications but we believe that exposure to crude oil may result in infertility.

Pod growth is directly related to the dominant female’s birth rate. The A1 transient pod was confirmed this past year to have dropped from 30 individuals to only 7. In the past 20 something years, not one new orca has been born into this pod. Likely, the dominant females died and there weren’t any to replace them. Then the offspring males were lost and their life expectancy dropped significantly. It’s both troubling and sad that we are seeing pods continue to show declines more than 2 decades after the oil spill.

photo by: Nick Docken
photo by: Nick Docken

I was excited and proud to think that my wandering eyes in binoculars could somehow contribute to our understanding of orcas populations in the Prince William Sound. I can’t take credit for the photos we obtained but it goes to show how useful each and every one of us can be in helping scientists when we share our observations. So next time you are out on a trip and see something cool, it can’t hurt to share the photos. You never know, they could end up helping us learn more about the world.


Arctic Facts: Tundra veg recovery, goose poop may help?

At the 2015 NAAGC conference this year I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kathleen Schnaars-Uvino from the University of Jamestown ( Dr. Uvino gave a great talk titled “Tundra Vegetation Recovery: If, When & How”, a research project assessing the potential recovery of vegetation on the arctic tundra after excessive degradation from Lesser Snow Geese.

With exponential increases in the number of Lesser Snow Geese in N. America over the past 15 years, we are seeing devastating effects on the arctic landscape from over-grazing of the above ground sedges and grubbing or uprooting of plants.

Within 5 km of the goose colony on Southampton Island, 2014. Some areas that have been used by large colonies of Snow Geese year after year are now looking like barren wastelands of mudflats and skeletonized willow shrubs, and black dead and dessicated moss carpet. A classic photo you see are from studies using exclusion fences in these areas to show the growth of what would be present if the geese weren’t using the area to the exposed surrounding areas heavily overgrazed:


Robert Rockwell, an ornithology professor at City University of New York, studies one of his exclosures on the tundra of La Perouse Bay in northern Manitoba in July 1999. Exclosures such as these provide dramatic evidence of the damage overabundant snow goose populations have caused to the fragile Arctic ecosystem. Rockwell will be returning to the tundra later this spring to spend his 46th season at the research camp near Churchill, Man. (John Stennes, Grand Forks Herald)
Robert Rockwell, an ornithology professor at City University of New York, studies one of his exclosures on the tundra of La Perouse Bay in northern Manitoba in July 1999. Exclosures such as these provide dramatic evidence of the damage overabundant snow goose populations have caused to the fragile Arctic ecosystem. Rockwell will be returning to the tundra later this spring to spend his 46th season at the research camp near Churchill, Man. (John Stennes, Grand Forks Herald)

Sure the tundra is a big place but what will happen if these huge stretches of arctic tundra don’t recover? Dr. Uvino presented us with the results of her long term goose exclusion areas to determine the potential regrowth of vegetation in these degraded areas without goose grazing. Some of what she presented was success; plants regrew and vegetation was both diverse and successful. However, this wasn’t the case at all sites. Most sites if geese had been using the areas for over 15 years prior to the construction of the exclusion fences did not have much recovery at all over 7 years. Exclusion fences demonstrate the most ideal case, where geese are prevented from any access to the area. Unfortunately, fences do not provide a realistic result of what the tundra can do to recover as it is unlikely we’ll ever have full removal of geese from these areas.

The kicker in Dr Uvino’s talk? She noticed that the plant species growing in these closed off areas inland from the coast had both freshwater sedges as well as marine species! Paraphrasing here you can imagine her surprise thinking, “what the heck are marine plant species doing 10 km inland from the coast?”. Brilliantly, she noticed that these sites had numerous fecal remains from bear, goose, fox and caribou. She took those remains, planted them and sure enough….goose poop had marine plant seeds in them that sprouted. Snow geese and other herbivourous species are spreading seeds as they consume plants from both the coast and inland during the breeding season. You can imagine that as the tundra continues to try and recover from goose-related degradation, we have to wonder what our arctic will look like as plant communities are changing forever.


I also want to say bonjour to Mme. Ross’ class! Merci de votre visite @northofthegrid. Follow your passion et toujours poser des questions!

Lesser Snow Geese on Southampton Island, Nunavut
Lesser Snow Geese on Southampton Island, Nunavut

Arctic Facts: How many kinds of geese are there in the Arctic?

As a graduate student it is very valuable to attend various academic conferences related to the systems or topics you work in. Travelling to conferences can be costly and I am fortunate to have very supportive supervisors in my graduate program that are able to provide me with the opportunity to attend such events. This past week I attended the North American Arctic Goose Conference in Winnipeg, Canada. The experience was undoubtedly positive and informative both in meeting biologists whose work I read every day, but also to hear all the current research and plenary talks surrounding arctic geese. As a shorebird biologist I do not have the extensive field experience working with geese and it was great to listen to all the background information revolving around the numerous goose populations in North America. For example, I did not know how many species there were of geese that all look the same as Canada geese but are not……

Check this out.

What is even more interesting is the fact that if you take these different species or subspecies and raise them in the same environment they will grow to be the same size! So ultimately this is a great example of how environmental resources can influence not only the distribution of a species but alter their ability to grow.

Dr. Jim Leafloor
Jim Leafloor, Canadian Wildlife Service, rounding up geese for banding in Nunavut. Credit Tim Moser, USFWS.

Jim Leafloor (read more about Jim), who coordinated and organized the conference this year, gave a great talk surrounding not only the population status of numerous goose populations in North America but also touching on this important fact that even with a good quality photo, some of these birds can’t even be identified to species. This can certainly complicate things when doing population surveys and estimates of increases or declines in their numbers.

(Environmental effects on body size of Canada geese (Leafloor 1998))


Arctic Facts: Carry-over effects of stress, I know you can relate

Stress. It’s a very convoluted term. We use this word all the time to describe how we are feeling, but how does that translate directly into the things that we do? I know when I feel “stressed”, I can’t concentrate as well as I do when I feel happier or “less-stressed”. This is particularly pronounced when I’m chronically stressed. Chronic stress for me often translates into reduced studying performance and therefore, for example, a decreased grade on a test perhaps.

This comic belongs to
This comic belongs to

Or how about chronically stressed graduate students maxed out on circulating stress hormones from an approaching Masters or PhD defense?

Our bodies produce a stress-hormone in response to different environmental changes, and some minor stress can be good for your body. Birds produce a stress hormone, just like us, called corticosterone (CORT). It’s a natural part of their life, and we can even predict changes in CORT levels in birds depending in the time of year and where the bird is in their annual life cycle. When birds are chronically stressed we can see (in some studies) that there are “carry-over effects” or effects from one part of the annual life cycle being carried into another part of the life cycle. One example for migratory birds is going from the breeding season into migration. This really interesting study on Kittiwakes  by Schultner et al. (2014) showed that there were behavioural changes in response to being treated with CORT that carried from the breeding grounds where they were given CORT, into their migration and wintering behaviour. Now, the consequences of me getting a poor grade is obviously not life-threatening nor is it likely to have negative effects on my lifelong performance as a person but as a bird, changes in behaviour, especially during an event like migration can have seriously dire effects.

Below, the first figure shows that 1) that female Kittiwakes left the breeding ground sooner than their “control” counterparts. This was also consistent when comparing departure dates to females from previous years. The second figure shows 2) females were delayed in returning to their breeding colony the following year (breeding colony indicated by black arrow) – the females CORT birds are in red triangles. Altered timing for life history events may have negative effects on breeding success, fitness and overall population growth.

One objective in my own PhD work builds off this experimental design where I want to compare naturally occurring CORT in shorebirds experienced on the breeding grounds in Nunavut to migratory behaviours like departure date, migration “speed” and stopover duration on their migration south. Two islands will be compared, 1) an island where there are no breeding geese, to 2) an island where thousands of geese brood their young directly around actively breeding shorebirds. Do geese disturb shorebirds enough to create a stressful experience on the breeding grounds that could transfer into behavioural changes during migration? I guess we’ll try and find out! I’ll be monitoring shorebird migration using the MOTUS array; for more information click this link: MOTUS Tracking Array

Schultner et al. (2014)
Schultner et al. (2014)








Schultner et al. (2014)
Schultner et al. (2014)