Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Bird’s Eye View, Book Review: On Thin Ice by Richard Ellis

As usual, my reading material pile is growing faster than I can keep up. Believe it or not, I now have 12 books waiting to be read, and am looking at them in dismay, thinking, “How did I ever let this pile grow to such epic proportions?” After all, I have had plenty of time on my hands! Now that it is too hot to bird or hike, I have been able to begin tackling “THE PILE”. The first book on the list was On Thin Ice by Richard Ellis. I attended a program given by Mr. Ellis at the Explorer’s Club this past winter, which was so interesting and engaging that I immediately booked him for our September program and bought his book. Although it had taken me some time to get around to reading the book it was worth the wait! Mr. Ellis is as impressive an author as he is a speaker.

On Thin Ice by Richard Ellis

Polar bears. Who doesn’t love a polar bear? Cute, fluffy and roly poly as cubs, majestic and beautiful as adults: they are the quintessential poster child for wildlife and not many are indifferent to them. When I picked up this book, I thought I knew all there was to know about ursus maritimus. After all, bears (especially brown bears) have been my favorite animal since I was 10 and I already own 30 books about these magnificent creatures. As I dug into this absorbing book, I found myself learning about the long (and for the bear, deadly) relationship between humans and polar bears. On Thin Ice offers a remarkable glimpse into the life of the polar bear, both past and present.

Ever since man first encountered polar bears, the big white bear has received the short end of the stick. Unfairly persecuted, hunted and harassed, early explorers killed, maimed and captured bears indiscriminately. It is painful to read these accounts of the suffering mankind has inflicted on polar bears. Ellis takes these accounts and stories and weaves them into a sad but intensely interesting timeline of history. Starting in the year 1056, we journey with Ellis until present day, learning about the natural history of this great bear along the way. We also learn the detrimental impact climate change is having on polar bears and their habitat.

Globally, there are 19 sub populations of polar bears. Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland and Norway all are home to these ice bears. Scientists have studied them for many years and thanks especially to the easily accessible population in Churchill, Alaska there is much we know about the species.

Polar bears are among the largest carnivores on earth, surpassed only by another bear, the Kodiak (Ursus arctos middendorffi), a subspecies of the brown bear. An adult female can reach 700 pounds, while a male can top the scales at 1500 pounds. Because they are only found in polar regions, polar bears are superbly adapted to their icy living conditions. Thick fur, covering even their feet (for traction), along with a layer of blubber (up to 40% of the animals weight can be fat) allows this predator to be the master of its domain and reign supreme at the top of the food chain.

Because their habitat is surrounded by water, these marine bears are excellent swimmers. On land, they might look large and ungainly, but don’t let that fool you. Like all bears, polar bears are capable of running at speeds up to 35mph. Of course, in order to conserve energy and prevent overheating, the bears do not spend their time running about. When you are the biggest and baddest in the neighborhood, you can afford to relax. So they spend a lot of time sleeping. They will wait, immobile, for hours at a breathing hole, biding their time until the precise moment a hapless seal pops out to take a breath. Then, with one powerful blow of their forepaw, dinner is served. An adult polar bear is massively muscled, strong and able to haul prey over 600 pounds. One swipe of that deadly paw can easily kill a 500 pound seal. Although they will take advantage of other food sources, such as beluga whales, sea birds and their eggs, young walrus and fish, their diet consists mainly of seal. Two species to be exact: the mainstay, ringed seal and to a smaller degree, bearded seals.

Mating takes place from March through June and the female bear then experiences what is known as delayed implantation. During this process, the fertilized ovum divides itself several times and then floats freely in the uterus until, after about six months, it reattaches itself to the uterine wall to resume development. If the bear has had a poor time of it and she has not put on enough fat reserves, the embryo will not implant. Only a pregnant female will hibernate and if the embryo is viable, the cubs will be born in their den between November and January and will stay with their mothers for a couple of years.

Ellis discusses the various populations around the world in great detail. It is fascinating to learn about the remarkable relationship that many native peoples have with the bear and to learn how human impact, most notably climate change, is pushing the polar bear to the brink. Because they are dependent on sea ice as a hunting platform, as the polar ice melts into the sea, so does the bear’s ability to successfully hunt. Polar bears are excellent swimmers, but that is not how they stalk and capture their prey. They do it by waiting on the ice for the perfect moment to grab their food source as it surfaces to breathe. Because of ice melt, seals have been forced to move into more inaccessible areas, thereby depriving bears of their prey. In addition, as our temperature warms, there is less snow for females to dig dens. Currently, there are only about 22,000 bears left in the wild, down about 50% in just 20 years.

After reading this book, I thought about all the "Global Warming Naysayers" out there. I thought, how can they deny this is happening? The Arctic is one of the regions that will show the results of climate change most rapidly. It is the perfect petri dish in which to demonstrate what is happening to our planet while the polar bear is an ideal specimen, illustrating with unfortunate clarity what happens to a species when the environment that it was superbly suited for undergoes a swift and severe change. No longer the dominant species in polar regions (for man has taken on that mantle and is thus destroying its habitat, livelihood and future), the polar bear now struggles to survive.

For hundreds of years, we have harassed, killed and conquered this remarkable animal. What we are inflicting on it now, through our impact on climate, is just the final indignity. We can change this. We must change this. The polar bear is not the only animal on the edge of extinction thanks to climate change. But, he is surely one of our most well known and beloved and thus, the perfect ambassador for why we need to take action now! It is not too late, but at the rate we are going, it will not be too long before it is. This is an important as well as entertaining book and I was captivated by it. I hope you will be too.

Stella Miller

Note: Richard Ellis will be our guest speaker on September 8, 2010 at the Cold Spring Harbor Library, 7pm. Please check our program page on the website ( for details about the program and to read his biography. We hope to see you there!


  1. Excellent review. I've enjoyed coming across your neat blog. Thanks.