Dot Earth often had the feel of an accelerating hamster wheel (see posts marked with the fire hose image). But it was a wheel of my own creation, given
the broad question I chose to pursue starting back in October, 2007 – how do humans navigate this century with the fewest regrets?
Countless relevant developments and insights slipped by before I could note them, which is why Twitter and Facebook, in the end, became
my real web log – my way of assessing, relating and sharing consequential nuggets crossing my screen. (I hope you’ll continue to follow me there; just click on the preceding links.)
Before this blogging adventure ends this weekend, there’s one sad development that I feel compelled to catch up with — the untimely death in August 2015 of Linda J. Gormezano — a tireless Arctic-focused field biologist from the American Museum of Natural History.
I first wrote about Gormezano’s innovative work studying coyote and polar bear populations with the help of her scat-sniffing Dutch shepherd, Quinoa,
back in 2007. But I kept track of the important batch of studies she produced in subsequent years, and the healthy debate they had prompted. Her work showed that polar bears, while best known for their life at
sea or on sea ice pursuing seals, have been able, at least in some circumstances, to gain significant nutrition on land as well, scarfing down geese and goose eggs, grasses and other fare when sea ice is in retreat.
There have been substantial, sometimes rancorous, debates among polar bear researchers about this predator’s prospects in a warming climate with less summer sea ice.
Robert F. Rockwell, a Museum of Natural History population biologist and ecologist who was one of Gormezano’s mentors since she started
at the museum as a grad student, made no secret of his frustration with what he felt was agenda-driven resistance to publishing some of her findings.
After her death (from natural causes unrelated to her work), he persisted at finding a home for her final paper, co-written with him and colleagues Scott R. McWilliams and David T. Iles. The paper was published in September
in the journal Conservation Physiology. You can read it here: “Costs of locomotion in polar bears: when do the costs outweigh the benefits of chasing down terrestrial prey?”
Rockwell has posted an inspiring written and pictorial tribute to Gormezano. I hope you’ll click and read and pass it around. He starts out describing
her, as a spirited and talented student, as “every professor’s dream.”
In this excerpt, you can read how she quickly became much more than that, steering the museum’s research program in new directions:
She was highly motivated, worked incredible hours, strove for perfection and was happy to debate everything I threw her way. She intended to work on coyotes in Westchester County but when I offered the opportunity to
shift to polar bears in the Canadian Arctic she jumped on board and became fascinated with the project, the Arctic and especially the people. She spent many hours collecting traditional knowledge from members of
both the Inuit community and especially the Cree First Nation.
Linda was an excellent listener and her discussions with Cree elders were part of what ultimately set her on a course of using non-invasive techniques to study polar bears. Other researchers’ use of invasive
techniques such as darting and tagging is anathema to the aboriginal worldview.
To meet this challenge, Linda acquired one of the loves of her life. Quinoa is a Dutch Shepherd that she trained from a 6-month-old pup to seek and find polar bear scat. Despite scientific “experts” who
claimed she would find nothing (many of them still feel polar bears “fast”), she and Quinoa found more than 1,200 piles of scat in three years.
She brought the samples to the American Museum of Natural History and painstakingly sorted each to identify and quantify the contents. Those data formed the core of her dissertation and allowed her to provide insights
on several novel aspects of polar bear foraging and nutrition.
Publishing scientific work through the peer review system is always difficult but even more so when your findings are at odds with popularized views. There is an unfortunate overtone in the world of polar bears that
is powered more by opinion than hardcore science. Far too many that call themselves scientists and experts are actually advocates connected to not-for-profit organizations that fund themselves through public fears
that iconic species such as the polar bear will soon go extinct. Linda’s work focused on a simple theme – “What are the bears actually doing?”
Tragically, her simple truth that the bears are “adapting” and trying to make the best of a changing situation struck a sour note with many of those who have influence over scientific journals.
Linda, being the exceptionally determined individual she was, never yielded but sought advice from our late colleague Robert L. Jefferies (Dr. Bob) who told her: “Stay your course. Good science, properly done,
thoroughly documented and well written, will ultimately win the day.”
Fortunately for polar bears and the rest of us, Linda took his advice, stuck to it and her papers began to flow. It is rare indeed that a graduate student displays that level of perseverance (and grit) – but
that was Linda.
Those who wish to help support the work of other young field researchers at the museum can contribute to the Linda J. Gormezano Memorial Fund, established there
by Gormezano’s husband, Michael DiBrizzi. The first grants will be given out next year, Rockwell told me.
To get a feel for this research and the environment around the southern shores of Hudson Bay, check out this great 2014 video report and story on the fieldwork on polar bears‘ novel
diets, featuring Rockwell and reported by Jim Gorman: