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From “quantum teleportation” to “Superconducting Super collider”, there’s nothing like an unusual word or intriguing turn of phrase to draw someone into a science story. Yesterday, the New York Times’ lead tech writer Nick Bilton took a shine to “charismatic megafauna,” after reading a post on The Thoughtful Animal about social cognition in polar bears. For those still scratching their heads, the post’s author Jason Goldman translates: “in other words, ‘really cool animals.'” These are the kinds of creatures you might see anthropomorphized in a cartoon, or starring forlornly from a wildlife conservation group’s literature or logo. Indeed, these animals are so amazing, and in many cases, so endangered, that they act as stand-ins for the whole of the natural world. While their ambassadorial status might draw more support or funding than the star-nosed mole, too much attention can be a bad thing. Jason’s post, after all, was about the avoidance behaviors polar bears exhibit in captivity, considering their solitary lifestyles in the wild. And earlier this summer, James Hrynyshyn of Class M wrote about the carbon cost of ecotourism to see these animals in their natural habitats.

Social Cognition in Polar Bears

The Thoughtful AnimalAugust 12, 2010

“Perhaps owing to the scarcity of available resources in the wild, polar bears live most of their lives in isolation. Aside from brief encounters for mating purposes, they live and hunt alone. The longest that polar bears are known to live together is for three years while mother bears care for their cubs. Their solitary lifestyle makes social encounters between individual polar bears extremely uncommon. And yet in captivity, polar bears are housed socially, with several individuals sharing the same space. Given their size and strength, aggressive interactions between individuals could be dangerous and potentially deadly. For these reasons, it is important to understand the social behavior of polar bears, in order to best design their zoo enclosures to minimize conflict and maximize health and quality of life.”


Loving the polar bears to death

Class MJune 23, 2010

“Ecotourism. Sounds so responsible, or least, non-exploitative. But let’s face it: Anyone who flies long-distance to get close to some endangered piece of nature at risk from climate change is doing their bit to push those species that much closer to extinction. A paper published recently in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism tries to quantify the irony. ‘The carbon cost of polar bear viewing tourism in Churchill, Canada’ looks at the carbon footprint of the polar-bear viewing industry in which, despite its remote location on the western shores of Hudson Bay, is still the cheapest option for almost everyone to see the species in its natural habitat.”