Polar bears from space: Assessing satellite imagery as a tool to track arctic wildlife

Seth Stapleton, Michelle LaRue, Nicolas Lecomte, Stephen Atkinson, David Garshelis, Claire Porter, Todd Atwood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Development of efficient techniques for monitoring wildlife is a priority in the Arctic, where the impacts of climate change are acute and remoteness and logistical constraints hinder access. We evaluated high resolution satellite imagery as a tool to track the distribution and abundance of polar bears. We examined satellite images of a small island in Foxe Basin, Canada, occupied by a high density of bears during the summer ice-free season. Bears were distinguished from other light-colored spots by comparing images collected on different dates. A sample of ground-truthed points demonstrated that we accurately classified bears. Independent observers reviewed images and a population estimate was obtained using mark-recapture models. This estimate (N̂: 94; 95% Confidence Interval: 92-105) was remarkably similar to an abundance estimate derived from a line transect aerial survey conducted a few days earlier (N̂: 102; 95% CI: 69-152). Our findings suggest that satellite imagery is a promising tool for monitoring polar bears on land, with implications for use with other Arctic wildlife. Large scale applications may require development of automated detection processes to expedite review and analysis. Future research should assess the utility of multi-spectral imagery and examine sites with different environmental characteristics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere101513
JournalPloS one
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 9 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are very grateful for the logistical support provided by the Department of Environment (Government of Nunavut), the University of Minnesota, and the USGS. We thank Universal Helicopters and our pilot and engineer. This research was conducted under Wildlife Research Permit Number 2012-052 (Government of Nunavut). Aerial survey field protocols were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at the University of Minnesota (Permit Number 1207A17284).


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