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Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Polar Bear Scientists, by Peter Lourie. Houghton Mifflin, Thomas Allen & Son, 2012.. $22.50 ages 10 and up

"Steve loves these animals because they're the largest bears in the world and they live in the most mysterious environment. "Plus," he says, "polar bears are the apex predator. If polar bears are doing well, probably the Arctic ecosystem is doing well." Studying these bears is like looking through a window into the entire ecosystem in which they live."

They only have six weeks each summer but the scientists who have been part of a long-term study of these majestic giants make the most of that time. In helicopters, they chase, dart, and capture the polar bears they find bent on studying their habits. It is a most interesting and humane way of tracking the bears they have tagged and watching to see how the bears and their families are thriving (or not) in the far northern landscape near Barrow, Alaska.

We meet the scientists, the pilot, the mechanic who tracks the helicopter and former scientists who have worked on this far-reaching study. They have a carefully prepared plan and Peter Lourie shares two captures,sharing his photographs and a play-by-play description of the work as it is being carried out.  He takes his photos as they first search for the bears, then track and tranquilize them so that they can measure and mark them for the future.

The stunning captioned photographs are an integral part of each page of information, showing the bears, the scientists, their interactions and their actions throughout the entire process. A younger reader would learn a great deal about these scientists and their charges by reading those captions and carefully considering the remarkable photographs. I was intrigued with the comparative sizes of footprints and the clear, sunny images captured from the helicopter.

Dr. Steven Amstrup has spent thirty years working with polar bears and he is given a voice in this book, concerning the bears he loves and the state of their habitat. He reiterates a warning that we are hearing more and more:

"We became aware," Steve says, "of global warming and the threat it presents to polar bears - a far greater threat because of the extensive loss of  essential habitat. You can have a population that is overharvested, and by reducing the harvest you can allow the populations to rebound and grow again. But if a population of animals doesn't have appropriate habitat, then you're in trouble. Because the world is warming (and it's warming because of human influences), there's going to be less sea ice. Sea ice is the habitat of polar bears. The ice is where polar bears have access to their principal prey, which is ringed seals, bearded seals, and spotted and harp seals."

Many questions remain unanswered as the study goes forward; but the dedication of these scientists is admirable and their research  provides for interesting and informative reading. A final conversation with Steve, followed by a glossary, a polar bear field guide, suggested books and websites, and a useful index bring us to the end of this newest addition to the Scientists in the Field series and leaves its readers learning much about polar bears, through the eyes of those scientists whose love for these beautiful creatures brings them back to the sea ice each year. 

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