April 22nd, 2009
11:15 PM ET

Polar Man

Researcher BJ Kirschoffer. Courtesy: Polar Bears International

Researcher BJ Kirschoffer. Courtesy: Polar Bears International

Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

That icicle hanging beneath BJ Kirschhoffer's nose is exactly what you think it is. Polar Bear researchers officially call them snotsicles. And it's what you get when it's about 50 below zero and you're outside for eight hours straight. The mission is to record what few have ever witnessed: hibernating Polar Bears emerging from their dens with their cubs. Human beings are not made to survive in 50 below zero. Neither are video cameras. But the ingenuity of BJ Kirschhoffer,  Director of Field Operations for Polar Bears International, and the research team at Brigham Young University, helped capture one of the most remarkable scenes you'll ever see in the natural world. You can view it exclusively on CNN by clicking to the rest of this story.

Researcher crawling into den - after the bears left. Courtesy: Polar Bears International

Researcher crawling into den – after the bears left. Courtesy: Polar Bears International


When someone begins a sentence with the words: "Most dens I've been in ..." you know you're talking to a Polar Bear expert. The expert, in this case, is Tom Smith of Brigham Young. He describes Polar Bears as “highly honed seal killing machines” whose dens are like “crypts,” as small as three feet tall, four feet wide, and five feet long. This for an animal that is a couple of feet taller and as much as three times heavier than Shaquille O’Neal.

The condensation from the Polar Bear’s body heat and breathing quickly freezes, encapsulating the interior of the den in a solid layer of ice. Professor Smith and his fellow researchers have never found evidence of a breathing hole or any other fresh air source in any den. How these animals survive the carbon monoxide levels that must exist in their dens is a complete mystery. Professor Smith does not have claustrophobia, but, he says, "I'd be psychologically damaged after spending an hour or two inside a Polar Bear den."


Only pregnant Polar Bears hibernate. They gorge themselves on more than a hundred pounds of seal fat during the fall, use their powerful paws and claws to dig their den up to three feet deep in the snow around the end of October, give birth around the first of the year, and emerge with their one or two or three cubs generally in March. We’ll get to why these giant creatures who’ve been roaming the tundra for 200-thousand years are suddenly threatened, and the rare video shot just weeks ago. But first, something that’s rarely been mentioned in public. The medical value of Polar Bears.


When Harvard Physicians Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein look at Polar Bears, they see possible cures for osteoporosis, diabetes, and kidney failure. They describe the potential in their fascinating new book “Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity.”

Dr. Chivian points out that humans would lose about a third of their bone after remaining immobile for five months. Yet denning Polar Bears, who, like us, are mammals, don’t lose any bone mass after their long, still, yearly hibernation. So every elderly person, every post-menopausal woman, anyone at all who’s at risk of osteoporosis, may have a personal stake in the survival of Polar Bears. How do the Polar Bears do it? According to Dr. Chivian: “Denning bears have compounds in their blood streams that inhibit the break down of bone associated with immobility and that may someday allow us to effectively treat, and perhaps even prevent, this largely untreatable disease." But they must be studied in the wild.

Polar Bears "don't eat, drink, defecate or urinate during those five months in their dens," marvels Dr. Chivian. And yet they don't starve, don't become dehydrated, don't suffer any problems from not defecating, and don't become ill despite not urinating. If we are unable to rid ourselves of urinary wastes, after a few days, we die."

Researcher Tom Smith in the Arctic. Courtesy: Polar Bears International.

Researcher Tom Smith in the Arctic. Courtesy: Polar Bears International.

And finally, as we’ve mentioned, when those pregnant Polar Bears prepare to hibernate, they gorge themselves on seal blubber. Brigham Young’s Professor Tom Smith notes that Polar Bear newborns weigh about one pound. They emerge after three months of weighing about 30 pounds because of the high fat content of their mothers milk. Whole cow’s milk in the grocery store is 3 percent fat. A Polar Bear mother’s milk is 30 percent fat. And yet, Polar Bears do not get diabetes. Dr. Bernstein, of Harvard: “Obesity related type II diabetes is essentially epidemic in the U.S., afflicting more than 16 million Americans….If Polar Bears go extinct, we may lose with them vital clues about how to combat this disease.”


It was Harvard’s Drs. Chivian and Bernstein who led us to U.S. Geological Survey’s Steve Amstrup, one of the godfathers of Polar Bear Research in the U.S., who, in turn, led us to his collaborators on the ongoing Polar Bear den study, which leads us to the Elephant in the Den – the key subject we haven’t yet explored here. The impact of climate change on the survival of Polar Bears.

What scientists know for sure is that climate change has been reducing the amount of solid arctic sea ice that has always been the Polar Bears’ stomping grounds, making it more difficult for them to hunt for seals and forcing many pregnant Polar Bears to build their dens on land – on the tundra - closer to human populations and Alaska’s oil drilling industry and infrastructure. Amstrup, Smith and their collaborators at The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Polar Bears International are spending their winters in a 50-below zero climate to see whether proximity to people affects the denning habits and survival abilities of Polar Bear adults and cubs. Nobody knows why this cub froze to death just outside its mother’s den, but it’s a reminder of how fragile these powerful creatures can be before they grow up.

A frozen Polar Bear cub. Courtesy: Polar Bears International

A frozen Polar Bear cub. Courtesy: Polar Bears International


Now that you have the background, the video you’re about to see will be all the more awesome. Before you click it, let us orient you. Beneath that snow drift, on a landscape BYU grad student Rusty Robinson describes as “unforgiving beauty” is a Polar Bear mom and at least one of her cubs. After five months, with no space to move around, no fresh air to breath, and confined to a den encapsulated by a solid sheet of ice, a black nose emerges. Given the depth of packed snow and ice it must break through, it may be the strongest nose on earth. The rest needs no explanation.

Exclusive video of a polar bear mom busting out of its ice-encased den after winter hibernation. The cub tags along. Courtesy: Polar Bears International.
Exclusive video of a polar bear mom busting out of its ice-encased den after winter hibernation. The cub tags along. Courtesy: Polar Bears International.
soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    “Obesity related type II diabetes is essentially epidemic in the U.S., afflicting more than 16 million Americans….If Polar Bears go extinct, we may lose with them vital clues about how to combat this disease.”
    When was the last time you saw a Polar Bear at McDonalds, Wendy's, Burger King, or KFC eating processed foods and processed frozen dinners?

    April 23, 2009 at 12:54 pm |
  2. Vicky, Ottawa

    Thanks for such an interesting post. The info. about polar bears providing clues to treating illnesses was really intriguing. I'm wondering how the connection was made between hibernation behaviour of the pregnant polar bears and implications for medicine. I'll have to let my niece and nephew know about this video, they'll love it ! I adopted a polar bear for each of them last year through WWF, and my niece would like to know where hers is actually.

    April 23, 2009 at 12:32 pm |
  3. Mari

    This is so sad. What's even sadder is that most Americans do not realize that our World is interconnected, all of us, animals, humans, seas, etc., we all really depend on each other.

    It is FACT that the polar caps are melting, that several glaciers have melted.

    I pray that we, wake up, and face the truth before it is too late.

    April 23, 2009 at 11:58 am |
  4. GGMa 10

    What a beautiful video!! What a wonderful story! Watching the cavorting of the mama bear, truly enjoying her body's freedom after all those months in her den, is exhilarating! 🙂

    April 23, 2009 at 5:45 am |
  5. Melissa, Colorado

    I like the hoppy cub in the back! He's fiesty! As far as medical help....polar bears aren't human, and I'm no vet-ician, but I would have to say that having polar bear stuff injected in me for osteoporosis better come with a cocktail, a good tagline, maybe a jingle, and a disclaimer. Hey, I know pig valves are good and all, but polar bears just makes me itchy!

    April 23, 2009 at 12:36 am |
  6. Helena

    Great post. Really informative stuff and a briliant video.

    April 22, 2009 at 10:41 pm |
  7. Michele Z.

    What an amazing video and animal. Maybe if more people new how wonderful these animals are & how much medical information we get from them, the more we all might try a little harder to save them & the world they inhabit.

    April 22, 2009 at 9:08 pm |
  8. Isabel

    Overcoming limitations and a beautiful work.
    Great post!

    April 22, 2009 at 9:04 pm |
  9. Victoria Poupko

    I am afraid that the study is too late. The extinction of polar bears will be sooner than the scientists will find something to apply to human health.. And especially in Alaskja, where Ms. Palin, the Governor, is a bad enemy of animals.

    April 22, 2009 at 8:49 pm |
  10. vacdepman

    First I have heard that mamals breath out carbon monoxide. I thought it was carbon dioxide.

    April 22, 2009 at 8:49 pm |
  11. Tom

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I am very intrigued about the entire medical discoveries that could prove to be breakthroughs.

    April 22, 2009 at 8:45 pm |
  12. Kathy

    author says 'carbon monoxide' in the den

    don't you mean carbon DI oxide !?!?!?! monoxide is from combustion, dioxide is from respiration.

    Clarity would be nice. Either this is tru and the author is such an expert the distinction need not be made, or ther is carbon DIoxide in the den and the author knows very little basic science, and the distinction went right over his head. Which do you think is more likely? !!!!!

    If there really was carbon monoxide in the den, the bears would die.

    April 22, 2009 at 8:42 pm |
  13. Linda Sante'

    This is an enormous helpful article on polar bears. This gives people the chance to see the huge empact polar bears have on the envroment including the medical value obtained from the mother's capacity for hybernation. It's amazing they have compounds in their blood that can cure diseases considered uncurable like osteoporosis. It's also amazing the hybernating mother lives in a crypt that has high levels of carbon monoxide. There are so many mysteries to be solved with this incredibly highly evolved creature. I hope your article, Anderson Cooper, gets wide recognition and these incredible animals will be with us for a very long time.

    April 22, 2009 at 7:45 pm |
  14. Elle

    No animal should ever go extinct. We can all learn so much from every species that exists on this planet. This was a fantastic post, thank you.

    April 22, 2009 at 7:21 pm |
  15. Joanne

    My heart broke for the frozen cub and her mother.

    April 22, 2009 at 7:20 pm |
  16. GF, Los Angeles

    I love polar bears! I'm very anxious that they will be extinct after watching a documentary on how much ice they're losing to live on thus they're now drowning and starving to death. The world will be a very sad place if these magnificent animals are lost because of mankind's destruction of this earth.

    April 22, 2009 at 6:54 pm |
  17. Annie Kate

    What an awesome video even though the polar bear and cub are far away and very small. After reading about the size of the den, I would be extremely claustrophobic if I had to get in one. I hadn't realized what all polar bears could help us find out medically either – thank you for a very informative post!

    April 22, 2009 at 6:48 pm |