Category Archives: wildlife

Gentle Alaskan Giants

More from The Museum of the North


A pair of whale skulls

The smaller of the two skulls came from a gray whale. Gray whales typically show up in Alaskan waters during April. May and June are the best months for sightings. After that, these whales make their way up to summer in the cool waters of the Bering & Chukchi Seas. Their migration in the Pacific Ocean can be as much as 7000 miles one way. They start their journey south again in mid-October, reaching Baja California in December and January.


A breaching gray whale

Male gray whales reach 45 feet in length on average, with females growing a bit larger. Weight runs between 30-40 tons for both sexes. Unlike humpbacks, they have no dorsal fin. Lifespan is estimated to be 50-60 years. Of the three original populations of gray whales, the eastern Pacific stock that spends part of the year in Alaska waters, is the largest. The northern Atlantic population is extinct, and the Korean, or western Pacific population is now severely depleted.


Bowhead whale skull

The larger of the two skulls is from a bowhead whale. The bowhead is Alaska’s official state marine mammal. Unlike the gray whale and humpbacks, bowheads spend their entire year in arctic and sub-arctic waters. Their great arching head can break through sea ice to create breathing holes, and their blubber can reach 20 inches thick, accounting for half their weight. Bowheads are extremely vocal mammals, which in addition to communication, seems to aid in navigating the ice filled waters of the Arctic. The bowhead may have the longest lifespan of any mammal on the planet at an estimated 200 years.


Bowhead whale

Bowheads run 45-59 feet in length, and weigh 75-100 tonnes as adults. Their population is still listed as threatened, with a world-wide population of 8000-10000. The Alaska population is doing the best, with the population tripling in the past 30 years.


Humpback whale tail

In all, Alaska has at least 14 species of whales that spend some, if not all of the year in its waters. The museum expects to put a full humpback skeleton on display soon. This particular humpback whale washed ashore near Anchorage, where a team from the museum collected the skeleton, then transported it over land to Fairbanks. The skull alone, weighed 807 pounds.


Pachyrhinosaurus skull

Alaska once had dinosaurs. A pachyrhinosaurus skull like this one, was found along the Colville River on Alaska’s North Slope. The pachyrhinosaurus roamed northwestern North America between 71 million and 67 million years ago. Distantly related to the triceratops, the pachyrhinosaurus was a large, if unaggressive beast. Reaching 20 feet in length and around 4 tons in weight. They lived in herds, were herbivores, and seemed to migrate long distances.


A rendering of a pachyrhinosaurus

In Greek, pachyrhinosaurus means “reptile with a thick nose”. Like the triceratops, the pachyrhinosaurus had a thick, boney neck frill. Unlike the triceratops, the pachyrhinosaurus did not grow horns, but had a large knobby growth protrude from it’s nose.

Thanks to the Encyclopaedia Britannica for the pachyrhinosaurus rendering; and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game for the whale photos. And a special thanks to Ancient Greece for the name pachyrhinosaurus, which in a perverse way, I enjoyed typing over and over, because the word seemed to freak out my computer.


World Wildlife Day


International Polar Bear Day 2019

Wednesday, 27 February, is International Polar Bear Day.


Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) close-up. Hudson Bay, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

There are 25,000 estimated polar bears world-wide. On average, a male polar bear weighs 1500 lbs, and can stand close to 10 feet tall on its hind legs. The largest known came from Alaska, and stood 12 feet, and weighed 2210 lbs. Females are quite a bit smaller, weighing on average 500 lbs, and only standing 8 feet tall.

Polar bears are closely related to brown bears. The two populations likely became isolated around the time of the last ice age, around 150,000 years ago. The two species can interbreed, but have adapted to very different habitats. Neither species would last long in the other’s habitat. For example, the polar bear is so adapted to the Arctic climate, that they can not take temperatures above 50F for very long.

Only female polar bears who are pregnant hibernate. Male bears are active year round.

Polar bears can, but rarely, live past 25 years in the wild. Although, in captivity, they have reached 43 years.

Russia outlawed the hunting of polar bears in 1956, the United States began protecting them in 1972. Regulation in Greenland started in 1994. Currently, Canada allows the hunting of up to 500 polar bears annually.


Moose Life

Somedays, it’s just good to be a moose…


Camera: Cellphone


Raven Bauble


Two common ravens in Fairbanks; cell phone photo

The Curator’s curiosity towards wildlife, knows no bounds, and he has more than once inquired about the difference between the American Crow and the Common Raven. A pair of Fairbanks ravens are pictured here.

Ravens are larger, about the size of a red-tailed hawk, and they often travel in pairs, where crows often travel in a flock. Crows have tail feathers that are basically the same length, so when they spread their tail, it looks like a fan. Ravens have longer middle tail feathers, so theirs looks like a wedge when spread out. Crows also emit a cawing sound, while a raven gives off more of a low croak.

The audio of a raven is an Alaska Field Recording, which is in the public domain. Thanks to floydstinkyboy for sharing it.

Ravens are seen year-round in Fairbanks. They are incredibly smart birds. I knew a sled dog who, I was told, had to defend his meals from ravens as a puppy, and he never forgot. He grew to hate ravens, and just the sight of them flying overhead drew a raucous, angry, bark fest. The ravens seemed to know this, as they would torment him just by chatting with him calmly from the tree top near his doghouse.
One of my favorite raven encounters happened in a lumber yard parking lot. I was in my truck talking to a customer on the phone, when a rather large raven landed on a truck in front of me. I watched captivated as the raven tore off the rubber from a windshield wiper. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man flailing his arms and running towards the truck. The raven quickened its pace, and promptly removed the rubber from the other wiper blade. Just as the man reached the truck’s hood, the raven lifted off into the air, with both rubber strips trailing behind it like a couple of thin snakes. An exasperated gentleman, proceeded to round on me for not defending his truck from the opportunistic flying thief. I had to admit to the man, that I was so mesmerized by the raven’s actions, that intervention never occurred to me. The entire time, the customer was howling in the phone, as I had been giving a play by play of the action.


Tale of three bears

Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, Canada

Wapusk National Park is a 11,475 square kilometer park located on the western coast of Hudson Bay. The University of Saskatchewan has been studying polar bears within the park since 2011. Wapusk sits at the transition of boreal forest and Arctic tundra. The park contains three different, but equally dynamic ecosystems: forest, tundra and ocean. Wapusk is one of the largest polar bear denning areas in the world, with a population of over 1000 polar bears venturing in and out of the park. During a five year period, remote cameras were able to document the visits of 366 polar bears within the park.

Since the southern portion of the park contains the northern edge of a boreal forest, it was no surprise to find images of black bears on the remote cameras. Researchers were surprised to find that the number of black bear visits were almost as high as the polar bears.

For the first time, researchers were able to capture visits from all three of North America’s bear species within the park. It wasn’t just a few grizzly bears that had moved into the area, but many, and at least one is believed to be denning within the park.

Barren ground grizzly bears have been expanding their range in the Arctic in recent years. The question now for park managers is what, if anything, should they do about it. Prevailing thought claims that the grizzly is a threat to polar bears. Is that based on research, or opinion? Have the two bear populations benefitted each other in the past, or clashed?

With the continued decrease of sea ice, and the grizzly roaming into new territory for food and habitat, this interaction of the two species will only increase.

It’s an interesting study by the University of Saskatchewan, and they ask some intriguing questions.

Photo credit: University of Saskatchewan; Research by Douglas Clark, University of Saskatchewan


A Weasel Welcome Home

When I returned home from the fishing trip to Seward, I was putting the fish in the freezer, when I heard a rapid, chirp-like bark coming from where my feet were. I looked around, and finally spotted the blur of my neighbor, Mustela Nivalis.

The least weasel seemed to miss me, or else it was disappointed that it had to share the cabin again. Up until that point, even the trail camera was too slow to get a decent picture of the little carnivore, but now it was putting on a show. It followed me all over the place. From one side of the cabin to the other, the little weasel didn’t let me get out of it’s sight.

A dozen pictures of the weasel, and three videos later, I called it a night, and left the weasel still barking at me from under my freezer.