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Saving a Species: Polar Bears

30 minutes

(male #1) On this edition of "Saving a Species: Polar Bears." They live in one of Earth's harshest environments... ...with an exceptional mix of physical and behavioral adaptations. Their survival comes down to their ability to find and conserve energy... ...and our ability to reduce energy consumption. Their environment is melting away and time is running out. But there is hope, and more than ever, the solutions involve your everyday actions.

(Describer) In an animation, different animals are shown, turtles, a penguin, a tiger, a gorilla, a bald eagle, a whale and a polar bear. Title: Saving a Species: Polar Bears. William Street, Conservation and Education, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens.

Hello and welcome to "Saving a Species." I'm Bill Street. For today's program, we've teamed up with experts from Polar Bears International. We're going to show you stunning views of polar bears in the Arctic and the changes happening to their environment. But first, we need to kick this off with one important idea. We're connected to polar bears in ways that affect their habitat and survival. Our own Chuck Cureau explains.

(Describer) Title: Closer Than You Think.

(Describer) Snow blows across the tundra with a low orange sun in the background.

(Chuck Cureau) It's hard to imagine a wilderness more inaccessible than the home of the polar bear.

(Describer) One walks across ice.

Only animals adapted to survive in the extreme cold stand a chance here. Among those animals, the polar bear is the epitome of specialized adaptation.

(Describer) Two stand on their hind legs and wrestle.

You're looking at one of the earth's top predators, but in its primary habitat, it doesn't see any land. You're one of the toughest predators to walk

(Describer) Chuck Cureau:

the face of the earth, but the earth really isn't earth at all. It's just a thin layer of frozen water. No matter how tough you are, you are always vulnerable to one possibility. Turn up the temperature a few degrees and everything you depend upon for survival could simply melt away.

(Describer) With a polar bear behind a window...

For most of us, this is about as close as we'll ever get to an actual polar bear. Places like Sea World's Wild Arctic can bring you nose to nose with polar bears.

(Describer) The bear holds up a paw.

Whoa, that is pretty close, and it's really cool. Your connection to and your impact on polar bears is a lot closer than you think. Let's start off with a little geography. Right now, I'm in Orlando, Florida, but I want to hightail it over to San Diego, California.

(Describer) He claps and the background changes.


Well, it's not quite that easy. Truth is, I'd have to drive or fly about 2,400 miles. People make this trip all the time, right? Now, let's say I'm back in Orlando, but this time I want to go north to polar bear territory. The southernmost range of polar bears in North America is about 600 miles north of the U.S. border. My trip to see a polar bear would be shorter than my trip to San Diego.

(Describer) Doctor Stephen Amstrup:

Some polar bears live in Hudson Bay and Labrador, very close to the United States. But the entire range of polar bears includes five nations and expanses of frozen Arctic Ocean.

(Describer) Cureau:

(Chuck Cureau) Humans aren't just close to polar bears geographically. The decisions we make and the things we do are having a profound effect on polar bear habitat. Many of the things that we do every day

(Describer) He breathes in.

produce an invisible gas called carbon dioxide.


(Describer) He breathes out.

Trust me, it's there. The carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is super important.

(Describer) Under a blanket...

It helps trap the sun's energy, kind of like a blanket, keeping the temperature just right.

(Describer) In some bushes...

It's also one of the ingredients of photosynthesis, where carbon dioxide, along with water, produce energy and the oxygen that we breathe.

(Describer) He stands on a balance board.

Between carbon dioxide and oxygen, it's a constant natural balancing act. Now, that balance is harder to come by. Every time we produce or burn energy, we release more carbon dioxide. Nowadays, we're using more energy than ever, and deforestation reduces our planet's ability to convert all this extra carbon dioxide into oxygen. Instead, that carbon dioxide is building up in the atmosphere. Now, add up all the carbon dioxide emissions from all the energy consuming items that we use every day...

(Describer) He falls. Under the blanket...

What you've got as a result is like someone throwing a second blanket over the earth's atmosphere. Is it hot in here or is it just me?

(Describer) Rocks poke through the snow on the tundra.

It'd be great if we could somehow build a bubble around the Arctic and protect it from the rising temperatures and melting ice, but we can't.

(Describer) Amstrup:

The only solution that we can directly control is to change human behavior. We have to make smarter choices about our energy consumption, and that means smarter choices in just about everything we do: where we live and work, how we get around, and what we choose to eat. We need to choose, build, and live sustainably.

(Describer) In a house, Cureau:

Easier said than done, right? Imagine I told you to adjust your thermostat, cut down on your time with the blow dryer, or tell mom to carpool to work. How tough would that be? Let's find out.

(Describer) A young man stands outside a house.

This is Spencer and this is Spencer's family. They've agreed to help us with an experiment. For a week, Spencer will play energy cop, working to get his family to conserve energy. Spencer will record whatever happens on camera and we'll learn firsthand what it takes to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and hopefully make a positive difference for polar bears.

(Describer) Street:

We'll have the results later in the program, but now it's time to turn our attention to the Arctic. Polar bears may be one of the strongest, most well-adapted animals in their domain, but even for them, survival in the Arctic is a daily struggle.

(Describer) Title: Made for the Arctic.

(Describer) The sun rises in darkness.

(male #2) If you picture the Arctic as a lifeless, frozen space, then get your head out of the freezer.

(Describer) One is closed.

Get ready for the real Arctic. I'm Tim. I'm Robin. Here's what it takes

(both) to survive in the Arctic. You've got to have the right gear for the job. Polar bears have awesome gear for the Arctic.

(Robin) Underneath all that fur, there's an incredibly thick hide and several inches of fat. It all serves as head-to-toe insulation.

(Tim) Polar bear insulation is so good that they're more likely to get overheated than to feel the effects of the cold. Let's talk paws. A polar bear's paw is like this multipurpose tool with a lot of functions all in one. Thick, textured pads provide extra protection on sharp, broken ice and traction on thick, slippery ice. Those paws are as wide as a dinner plate. That extra width makes the paw like an oar, allowing polar bears to paddle through icy waters and swim huge distances. Large paws also serve another purpose: weight displacement. Despite their huge size, a bear's weight is distributed evenly, allowing them to stay on thin ice humans wouldn't dare set foot on.

(Tim) Then there are the claws. Polar bear claws are short and strongly curved, allowing the ice bear to grab the slipperiest prey.

(Robin) Look at these teeth, 42 of them, all designed for ripping and tearing at maximum speed.

(Tim) We can't forget the nose. A polar bear's nose is highly sensitive and helps with locating prey from great distances. They have one of the most sensitive noses in the world. The polar bear is equipped to be the Arctic's most effective predator.

(Robin) Even those visual details that make the polar bear seem so lovable, like cute little ears and a tiny tail-- That's not cute, that's function. Smaller extremities mean less heat loss. Everything about a polar bear is suited to the Arctic environment. Here's why that's important.

(Describer) A polar bear walks across snow with ice moving in the background.

(Robin) This is the true Arctic, a place that's always expanding, shrinking, where ice is always on the move. That means the bear's food source is always on the move. You tell them. No, you're doing great. Okay, fine, look, here's the deal. A bear's primary food source is seals. They're adorable, but a bear has got to make a living. Boy, do they ever. With all that blubber, seals are a high calorie, made-to-order package of perfect polar bear power. To understand what motivates a polar bear, you've got to understand what motivates a seal. To do that, you've got to turn the world upside down. Imagine this cup of ice is the Arctic. Up top, everything is calm, but below the ice, sunlight is poking through.

(Robin) That sunlight creates algae and tiny plant life. This serves as a food source for small invertebrates and tiny fish. Guess who enjoys eating the fish?

(both) Seals.

(Tim) Seals hunt for food beneath the ice, but they're air-breathing mammals, so they dig and maintain breathing holes in the ice. These breathing holes help seals survive. But in some cases, it spells their doom.

(Robin) The polar bear knows about those breathing holes and is willing to wait it out for the next seal beneath the ice. More often than not, the wait doesn't pay off, but when the seal does come up for air,

(Describer) Tim grabs a photo of a seal Robin holds up. Different polar bears walks around.

that's it for the seal.

(Tim) For the bear, this seems like a sweet setup, but remember this is the Arctic and the Arctic is continually changing. Animals like ring seals, bearded seals, and the Arctic fox all know they have to stay on the move and go where the food is. The same is true for polar bears.

(Describer) One leaves a long line of tracks in the snow.

(Robin) Take that heavy insulation, the paws, the claws, the teeth, the nose, and those special adaptations, and that would be nothing if the polar bears didn't have a keen sense of food on the move. The ability to follow food sources may be the polar bear's greatest asset and what puts this predator at the top of the Arctic food chain.

(Describer) Street:

As Robin and Tim just explained, polar bears are perfectly suited for their environment, but that means that they are completely dependent upon their environment. For polar bears, living on Arctic ice is the only option.

(Describer) Title: On Thin Ice. By the observation window, Julie Scardina:

(female) Even with all the adaptations that place them at the top of the Arctic food chain, polar bears still need to live by one unforgiving reality. The amount of energy spent has to be less than the amount of energy being taken in and stored. This apple contains 95 calories. At most, I'll burn a couple of calories grabbing it and eating it. Nutritionally, that's a good deal. Hey!

(Describer) Someone takes it.

Let's say someone takes that same apple and places it in a really high place. To get that same 95 calories, I have to climb up and down the tree. In the process, I could lose hundreds of calories. Suddenly, this deal's looking like a bad apple. Here's how that principle applies to polar bears. Let's imagine a bear sees or smells many seals. She could dash around hoping to catch one, but most seals would hear her coming and escape. The energy consumed in that kind of hunt could outstrip the energy gained from eating a seal.

(Describer) Amstrup:

A better method is a slow, planned stalk. Bears can be stealthy as they sneak up on a seal. The bear takes advantage of channels melted in the sea ice to keep a low profile and sneak up on the seal without being seen. The bear stays mostly hidden in the water with its head and shoulders above the surface. The rest of the bear is below, like an iceberg. It takes some work, but this can be an effective way to balance its energy output and its energy input.

(Describer) Scardina:

(Julie Scardina) Another effective hunting method is what's called still hunting. The bear uses the ice as a hunting platform and waits for a seal to come up for air. The bear plucks the seal out of the hole. By waiting for the food to come to her, the bear has expended less energy and has gained the calorie-filled fat and protein from an easier kill. If polar bears were able to stay in one place, then conserving energy wouldn't be a big deal. However, because ice changes with the seasons, the landscape, or rather, icescape, is never the same. The ice is on the move, seals are on the move, and so are polar bears. It may seem like a tough life, and it isn't easy, but the balance between food source, miles traveled, and energy consumed works perfectly for the bear. That is, unless something comes along and changes the equation.

(Describer) Amstrup:

(Steven Amstrup) Polar bears live throughout the circumpolar Arctic and experience a wide variety of sea ice types. But polar bears make their living in the Arctic ring of life. This is shallow water areas adjacent to the northern coast of the land masses that ring the Arctic. That ring of life depends on having a certain amount of ice in certain areas for a long enough period, but it is disappearing at an alarming rate.

(Describer) Scardina:

Polar bears depend on sea ice, not just for hunting and traveling, but also for mating, and in some populations, for creating dens where mother polar bears nurture their young.

(Describer) Amstrup:

The only time you typically see polar bears hauled out on land is when they've been forced ashore as the sea ice has melted. There's nothing on land for them to eat that's as nutritious as the rich seals that they catch on the sea ice. They come ashore, wait for the ice to return, and they're saving energy. They've slowed down and they're surviving on the stored fat to get them through until the sea ice and food supply return.

(Describer) Scardina:

That's the essential dilemma of a polar bear's existence. They may be the dominant animal on the ice, but anywhere else in the world, they wouldn't stand a chance. They're so perfectly adapted to life on the Arctic sea ice that, for them, there's no other option. You take away the ice and you take away the polar bear.

(Describer) One climbs down from a rock. Street:

(Bill Street) Remember that when it comes to climate change and melting ice, it's not a hopeless situation. You can make a difference. Coming up, Chuck Cureau will share the results of our energy savings experiment-- one teenager trying to reduce his family's energy consumption.

(Describer) Spencer:

They left every light on because they were afraid of a scary movie, so I need to talk to them.

(Bill Street) We'll have the results in a few minutes, but first, another kind of challenge.

(Describer) Street:

There are still things we don't know about polar bears. Filling those knowledge gaps requires risk, spirit, and a lot of innovation.

(Describer) Title: The Need to Know. By polar bear video on a laptop, Tim:

When it comes to studying polar bears, nothing is easy. The Arctic is one of the least accessible, harshest environments on earth.

(Robin) The bears themselves, let's just say they're not cooperative subjects.

(Describer) Robin:

Nobody knows that better than the researchers at Polar Bears International.

(Describer) After riding snowmobiles, they set up equipment.

(Tim) To get to know their subjects, they spend a lot of time on sea ice, watching, tracking,

(Describer) Tim:

and observing polar bears in a way few people ever get to experience. Let's hear them tell it.

(Describer) B.J. Kirschoffer:

The first rule to observing polar bears is do no harm to the bears and keep the observer out of harm. We do this with remote control cameras and cameras with long lenses, but to obtain meaningful data, that requires capturing, tagging, and radio collaring polar bears.

(Describer) Amstrup:

Our goal is to understand bear ecology and behavior-- to find out where they go to mate, to have their cubs, what kind of food they catch. It seems like we're learning something new every day.

(Describer) Robin:

But the most frequently asked question and most difficult to answer is: How many polar bears are there?

(Describer) Tim:

Scientists have been trying to answer that for decades. Here's what we know.

(Describer) Robin:

(Robin) Polar bears exist across five of the eight nations within the Arctic Circle and can be divided into 19 regional populations.

(Tim) Add those populations together and the current estimate is about 20,000 polar bears. You might think counting polar bears is simple. The sea ice is wide open with no places to hide. A quick aerial survey should be able to settle the question. I wish.

(Describer) Kirschoffer:

When you see close-up footage, it's easy to forget how effective the polar bear's white camouflage can be.

(Describer) Tim:

Up in the air, it's a different story.

(B.J. Kirschoffer) Polar bears are nothing more than small, white dots on a large, white background. A standard visual count isn't going to do it. Forward Looking Infrared or FLIR cameras can detect polar bears because they are warm bodies against the background of ice.

(Robin) See that different colored spot? This image, taken from a plane, shows the heat from a polar bear's body. FLIR lets scientists catch what they've missed with the naked eye. It's been helpful in locating occupied dens under the snow.

(Describer) Robin:

However, FLIR is not the best for searching for bears across the expanse of the pack ice. Imagine you have to search a large area

(Describer) She holds one up and tosses it.

to find a lost dime... by only looking through a soda straw.

(Describer) Tim takes one, and searches.

You might find it, but you're only getting a tiny part of a large picture at one time.

(Describer) He spots it. Amstrup:

Simply counting bears is just too great a challenge and even technologies like FLIR will miss polar bears out on the sea ice.

(Tim) The most accurate counts of polar bears have come through a process that's costly, time intensive, and potentially dangerous. But over the decades, tagging bears has proved the best way to count bear populations from year to year.

(Describer) The tag is on the ear.

By placing a numbered tag on the bear, we're assured that that bear is accounted for and won't be confused with another bear. If we place a radio collar on a bear, we can get a handle on its movements and understand how those movements change as the sea ice changes in a warming environment.

(Describer) Tim:

There's no way to tag an active polar bear and live to tell the tale.

(Robin) Instead, researchers use tranquilizing darts. Once the bear is sedated, they apply the tag without any harm to the researchers or the bears.

(Tim) A tagged bear can yield years of information about general bear numbers and movements. But now, thanks to innovations in satellite technology, that flow of information is breaking new ground. For years, we've been putting radio-transmitting collars on polar bears with excellent results.

(Describer) Amstrup:

First, we followed collared bears with airplanes. Their movements were too great to effectively follow by airplane. Newer satellite radio collars allow us to follow them anywhere and we can get daily transmissions. It's GPS for polar bears. We can pinpoint the whereabouts of a collared bear, and by collecting data over an extended period, we can paint exact pictures of bear movements and migration.

(Describer) Robin:

That is information that's absolutely critical as scientists gauge the impact of climate change. And melting polar bear habitat.

(Describer) Street:

Most scientists agree that the rising temperatures and the resulting loss of Arctic ice are linked to the buildup of excess carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. A way we can help is control our energy consumption and reduce our use of fossil fuels. Easier said than done? To find out, we've put an average family to the test.

(Describer) Title: The Energy Challenge. Spencer sits at a computer. Cureau:

(Chuck Cureau) By most measures, high school senior, Spencer, and his family are already conservative energy consumers. They keep the A/C on a reasonable setting. They don't leave lights on. By average standards, this family is already tight with the kilowatt. Here we have Spencer, in person. We gave you a huge challenge. It was to get my family to save even more energy than normal. What came first? I had to learn power saving tips from the local power company.

(Describer) Suzanne Grant:

There are things your family can do, simple behavioral things to reduce your energy use. One thing is you have ceiling fans here and they're going all the time. Ceiling fans cool people, not rooms. When there's no one in the room, switch off the fan.

(Spencer) Other tips included turning down our water heater, running the pool pump for shorter cycles, turning off computers and televisions, and taking shorter showers.

(Describer) Cureau:

I understand you did something cool. You kept a video diary of the challenge week? I recorded as much as I could, including our power usage during a normal week.

(Describer) In his video, he goes to the electric meter and reads.

(Spencer) "8-4-5-3-1." All right, that is the number today. In a normal week, we use 663 kilowatts, but in this challenge week, we had to do better.

(Describer) He turns off a lamp. Sitting in his room...

All right, so day two, I turned off a lot of lights. That's most of what I've been doing. I turned off the computer after I finished using it. This morning, I turned off the water between soaping up, and this, and then rinsing, Saving hot water was the toughest part of the challenge. My mom is taking too much time in the shower. Mama! How long have you been in the shower?

(Mom) A Maroon 5 song, a Boston song. I'm hurrying, I'm hurrying!

(Spencer) Hurry faster. Thank you, Mama. See how simple it is? It's not that hard to teach people. You're basically training. I'm teaching my family to conserve energy. Playing the role of energy cop meant I wasn't the most popular person. Hayley? Who left the kitchen light on? Not me.

I don't know. (Spencer) Was it one of them? The family was willing to turn the tables. Did somebody leave a TV on?

(Spencer) But I'm in my room. We combined car trips and drove fewer miles. Listen, you're walking home today, remember?

(Spencer) Yeah, because that will save a lot of mileage. We used our washer and dryer on cooler, more energy-efficient settings. I enlisted my dad's help with our pool pump. Right now we've got it set 10:00 to 10:00. We've got it set 12 hours. We're going to cut it back. To maintain the pool, it's got to run at least 10 hours. We're going to back it off two hours.

(Spencer) Unfortunately, we reset the pool pump late into our challenge week, but it was a start and every bit helps.

(Describer) Cureau:

How did you do? We saved 123 kilowatts and we drove 146 miles fewer than the week before. Was that what you were hoping for? The number wasn't as good as we hoped, but it's a start. Let's put things into perspective here. You saved 1/10 of an average energy bill and you did that in one week. The more kilowatt hours saved means less carbon dioxide. Now, multiply that savings by all the households in America and multiply that savings over the entire year, that's a huge impact. That's amazing. Thank you and your family for doing that and leading the way. My pleasure.

(Describer) Street:

Now the challenge begins. We're going to focus on you. Julie Scardina joins us with the top five things that you and your family can do to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and make a positive impact on our warming planet.

(Describer) Title: What's at Stake. Scardina:

I'm about to count five things that you can do to help reduce your carbon footprint and actually save money. After each tip, we'll share an important fact about the melting polar bear habitat to remind us of what's at stake. Here we go, starting with tip number five: air drying. By not using your dishwasher's heat dry cycle and by choosing to air dry your laundry, that's a significant reduction in your monthly energy use. While you're considering that tip, also consider this. If you took Alaska, Washington State, and Texas, and put them together into one super landmass, that would give you some idea of the amount of summer ice loss from the Arctic in recent years. Counting down to number four: phantom power. Turning off unused lights is an obvious good practice, but most people don't think about computers, stereos, TVs, and cable boxes. They may appear to be off, but they're drawing phantom power all day long. Plug those devices into a power strip and turn the power strip off when not in use. Here's why actions like that are important. Studies have shown in the Hudson Bay area that polar bears are forced ashore earlier as the climate has warmed. This gives bears less time to hunt. They're forced ashore before they've packed on enough calories to make it through the summer. Here in the Arctic, polar bears are in distress.

(Julie Scardina) Tip number three: thermostats. Your thermostat is a powerful tool for energy control. A programmable thermostat can reduce energy use. Setting the thermostat lower or higher by just a few degrees can reduce emissions and save energy and money. Don't forget, your water heater also has a thermostat. Most water heaters are set too high, wasting energy. Have an adult lower it each day until it feels like it's not hot enough, then raise it.

(Describer) Amstrup:

Evidence has suggested we've got malnourished bears clear around the Arctic. In certain areas, we've seen underweight bears, bears with smaller body stature, showing changed behaviors, even some bears digging through thick sea ice in order to try and catch seals that are long gone.

(Julie Scardina) Tip number two: energy efficient devices. Older appliances and devices just don't have the same energy efficiency as newer ones. When it's time to replace an appliance, look for this sticker and look for the highest

(Describer) Energy Star.

energy efficiency number you can find. Refrigerators, washers and dryers, and heaters and air conditioners use the most energy.

(Dr. Steven Amstrup) If polar bears are in trouble, that's a sign that the whole ecosystem may be weakening--

(Describer) Amstrup:

the algae that live on the ice, the bacteria, the small shrimp-like creatures that feed on those, the fish, and the seals that feed the polar bears-- if polar bears are in trouble, it is an indication that this whole system is crumbling.

(Julie Scardina) Our top energy-saving tip and maybe the easiest one to do: Replace your existing light bulbs with energy-efficient bulbs. These use less than 1/5 of the energy of regular bulbs. Energy-efficient bulbs come in all shapes and sizes and can replace nearly all of the lights in your home. Just changing all of the light bulbs will not only reduce emissions and energy use, but you'll see a big difference on your energy bill. That's it for our top five. When it comes to how you can help save polar bears, it's about reducing our carbon footprint and slowing climate change.

(Describer) Street:

We hope that's the message you get from this edition of "Saving a Species." The adjustments we make in our lives can have a direct effect on this magnificent icon of the Arctic. There's no animal like a polar bear, and with our combined efforts we can preserve this animal for generations to come. Visit and learn more about this amazing animal and the effects of climate change. You can become a fan of the Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund Facebook page. Until next time, I'm Bill Street, saying thanks to our friends at Polar Bears International, and thanks to you for watching and for your part in saving a species.

(Describer) Logos are shown for Sea World, Busch Gardens and Discovery Cove. Titles: Our special thanks to Polar Bears International for their support and partnership in the creation of this program. Its logo is artwork of a large polar bear hugging a baby one. The logo for the Sea World Busch Gardens. Conservation Fund has an eagle, wildcat and otter in a circle. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

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Report a Problem

Climate change is threatening the survival of the polar bears in the Arctic. Humans can take action to help reduce the negative effects of climate change and preserve the polar bears' habitat. In this episode, students learn a variety of energy-saving tips to help them reduce energy consumption in an effort to reduce the effects of global warming. Part of the "Saving a Species" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 30 minutes

Saving a Species
Episode 1
30 minutes
Grade Level: 5 - 9
Saving a Species
Episode 2
28 minutes
Grade Level: 5 - 9
Saving a Species
Episode 3
31 minutes
Grade Level: 5 - 9