The organization Wildtrack just wrapped up the first phase of the project, working this winter with Inuits in the northern Canada territory of Nunavut to identify individual bears by their tracks. Zoologist Sky Alibhai and veterinarian Zoe Jewell, Wildtrack's founders, load digital photographs of footprints taken by trackers into SAS's JMP statistical discovery software. They put marks on each image based on anatomical characteristics they've identified, and the software creates algorithms based on those points. JMP analyzes the data and identifies individual animals from among a database of collected footprints Wildtrack is building. It's a unique application for JMP, which is generally used by businesses to create graphics for visualizing product production and sales data.
Wildtrack also is including in its database a nontechnical input to footprint identification: the opinion of local trackers hired to find bears tracks. Polar bear tracking is an ancient art among the Inuit people, and scientists believe the best picture of local populations will come from considering Inuit trackers' opinions of whether two tracks belong to the same bear, as well as what the software is telling them -- even though, Jewell says, there are occasional discrepancies between the two sources. Which is proving more accurate? Wildtrack isn't sure, since it has just begun analysis on the data within the past few months, she says, and plans to collect more tracks beginning next January.
The environmental organization Greenpeace calls polar bears "the canary in the coal mine of global warming" and points to U.S. government research released two years ago that shows an increase in polar bear drownings off the northern coast of Alaska. Many environmentalists believe that melting polar ice is causing polar bears to swim longer distances for food, leading to higher levels of starvation and drownings within the species. Following pressure from Greenpeace and other organizations, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced last December that it was considering listing the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Interior Department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to reach a conclusion by this December following a scientific review.
Wildtrack, formed in 2004 to monitor endangered species and funded by nonprofits and for-profit organizations, including British Airways and Shell UK, hopes it can contribute data to the Fish and Wildlife Service effort. "This will enable pressure to be brought on governments to try and decrease carbon emissions," says Jewell. "I think, in the long wrong, evidence from environmental evaluations will have an impact. The new data that shows the problem we face is the only thing that's going to get legislation moving in the right direction."