Researchers study reindeer hunting by polar bears | Polarjournal
Footage taken by Polish researchers of a female polar bear successfully hunting a reindeer on Svalbard generated a great deal of interest among their Norwegian colleagues. They are now calling for public assistance. Video: Mateusz Gruszka CC BY 4.0

A common question asked in connection with Arctic animals in Svalbard is whether polar bears hunt reindeer. Until recently, everyone would have answered that the ungulates are too nimble for the powerful predators and therefore unlikely to be prey. But footage from a Polish research team and subsequent research shows that hunting of reindeer by polar bears is more common.

Footage taken by a Polish research team in Svalbard went around the world, portraying polar bears in a new light: A female bear chases an adult reindeer bull, drowns the fleeing animal in the sea and then drags it back to land to eat it down to about 20 percent. Meanwhile, more pictures of polar bears have been taken on Svalbard, documenting how the large predators hunt reindeer, and successfully. Corresponding pictures were recently published by the local newspaper Svalbardposten on its website.

During the summer, tens of thousands of people are on the move in and around Svalbard, whose highlight is watching polar bears feed. The researchers hope that some people also observe reindeer hunting. Images: Michael Wenger

To study this behavior in more detail, polar bear researcher Jon Aars and reindeer researcher Åshild Ønvik Pedersen of the Norwegian Polar Institute have teamed up. They want more details on the attacks, the tactics and also the reactions of the reindeer. Above all, they want to find out where, how often and under what conditions such hunts take place on Svalbard. That’s why they are calling on people in Svalbard to help. “We don’t have the opportunity to always be in every place and see everything that’s going on,” Jon Aars tells the newspaper Svalbardposten. “But there are so many people who are out and about in and around Svalbard who can give us more information. If we’re lucky, they could be people on a boat or on a voyage who can then take pictures.”

For the two researchers, it is not entirely surprising that polar bears might suddenly turn to reindeer as prey. After all, it is common knowledge that for some time now polar bears have been spending more time on land and thus away from their usual prey, seals. It is true that quite a few seals lie at the edges of glaciers in Arctic fjords. But polar bears still seek out other food sources. Bird nests, birds themselves, carcasses of dead animals, and even algae and other plants are also possible sources. And reindeer, of which there are about 20,000 on Svalbard according to official figures, are certainly a possibility. From an energy point of view, hunting these fast and agile hoofed animals is a great challenge. After all, hunting them is energy-intensive for bears, and reindeer are not as rich in fat as seals. Nevertheless, it seems to be worth it, says Jon Aars. The bears probably rely on the element of surprise and on bringing the reindeer to a place or position from which it can no longer escape.

Until now, it was assumed that only sick or injured reindeer fell victim to polar bears. But at least three attacks by the predators on the cloven-hoofed animals have been documented in Svalbard this spring alone. Image: Michael Wenger

However, Aars and Pedersen want to investigate details of the attacks with the help of photographs and descriptions sent in. They have drawn up a list of requirements for what the information sent in should look like:

  • Time, location, exact GPS data (if possible), name of the observer with contact information.
  • Description of the event as detailed as possible including all possible details about the polar bear, especially about possible identification possibilities (tags, numbers, collar)
  • Description of the behavior of polar bears and reindeer
  • Visual material (photos, videos)
  • Locations of reindeer carcasses that may have been victims of polar bear attacks (GPS coordinates, date found, description of carcass condition).
  • Fecal samples from polar bears showing traces of reindeer residue: about 1 gram wrapped in dry paper and then transferred to special tubes with silicone crystals for drying. Tubes are available at the research park in Longyearbyen. PLEASE DO NOT PACK IN PLASTIC BAGS! (Destroys possible DNA traces by accelerated decomposition of feces). All samples should be provided with details mentioned in point 1.

Both Jon Aars and Åshild Ønvik Pedersen hope that as much information as possible will reach them. Anyone with information can contact the two researchers at and

Dr. Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

ATTENTION: Visitors to Svalbard are NOT encouraged to search for such sites on their own in the regions around Longyearbyen. It’s recommended to leave town only with expert guides and appropriate safety equipment.

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