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The amazing strategies behind Caribou antlers. Nature has its reasons.

Caribou with large set of antlers

Caribou antlers all have a story to tell...

by Ian Thorleifson

Caribou antlers are spectacular to look at, but the strategies behind their growth and importance to an individual caribou are even more amazing. Everyone knows that males like to show off for females – that goes without saying. Caribou bulls are no different than males from other species, and the females do respond appropriately, but the showing off and responding is much more complex than just a look.

A caribou bull weighs about 325 pounds or 160 kg. They start with a bare forehead every spring, and in less than 120 days they grow a complete set of antlers that may weigh as much as 35 pounds – 10 percent of their body weight! That kind of growth is almost magical – in fact, no other living tissue grows that quickly except mushrooms!

While the antlers are growing, they are soft, covered with skin and hair and made up of spongy cartilage. They feel like your nose and similarly also have a bone at the base. Unlike your nose however, in the last month of antler growth the cartilage calcifies and becomes hard bone.

To keep the antlers tough and resilient enough to withstand the incredible pressures of battling with other bulls, the blood flow in the antlers – super quick and of large volume while the antlers are growing – slows to just the bare minimum. This prevents the bone from becoming too hard, as to be brittle and easy to break.

Growing new appendages that weigh 10 percent of body weight in such a short period of time takes more energy and nutrients than a bull caribou can generate by eating, so he robs his own skeleton for building materials like calcium and phosphorus, to the point where his ribs would break easily if they were struck in the summer. This is why the bulls complete their antler growth at least a month before the rut. They need to gobble as much nutrition as possible to replace those borrowed building materials and get strong and fat before the rut.

Antlers are expensive, but they add up to a graphic demonstration of the bull’s health, ability to mobilize nutrients and avoid predation – a measure of his vibrancy and value as a sire of many caribou calves.

Caribou cows grow antlers as well, but their strategies are quite different. Their antlers are much smaller than the ones the bulls grow, and they don’t need them to “show off” with – they need them to fight with at feeding sites and to fend off predators.

Bulls grow their antlers earlier in the year, use them in the rut, and drop them as soon as the rut is over. Cows grow their antlers later, and carry them all winter.  Amazingly, cows that are not pregnant going into the winter drop their antlers earlier as well, so by late spring and calving time, all the antler advantage in competition for nutrients or fighting wolves goes to the pregnant cows. Shortly after the calves are born in early June, newly growing plants offer a flood of nutrients. The cows drop their remaining antlers and…

nature’s elegant cycle begins anew.

Please (polar) bear with me…

Polar bear looking fior lunch! Rebecca Reimer Photo

Polar bear looking for lunch! - Rebecca Reimer Photo

by Doreen Booth

It was an early start on my first day of the tour and I would come to learn that there were many more sunrise beginnings during my northern adventure! As I am new to the company (not new to the family) I was going to the lodge to see what we are all about. No matter how many stories I heard, nothing prepared me for the experience I was going to have!

The day of my departure to the lodge was extremely windy, and not that I like to admit this, but I am not the best “flier”. Our friendly pilot, Nelson, knows this all too well and let me have the co-pilot’s seat on the way out to the lodge. When we landed, the departing guests advised us to watch out for the bear on the trail. WOW, our first bear already? We were able to snap a few photos of him napping on the trail before he awoke to his audience and went to look for a private room.

After a delicious lunch and our visitor’s briefing, we headed out on our fist hike braving those still strong winds and walking at a slight angle in order to stay standing up! We saw four more bears and hadn’t even gone very far. We made sure to get back to the lodge in time for appetizers and drinks. What a great way to wind down in the lounge with a fire going in the woodstove, large picture windows facing the bay, and a glass of wine! I like it here already.

The following days were a blur! We were up at 7 a.m. for coffee and enjoyed the view out the large lounge windows.  All you saw was water, rocks and oh yes POLAR BEARS! There was a spotting scope for everyone to use and we were always on the lookout. We could see the bears coming from miles away and it was truly amazing to watch them swim to shore as they can move extremely quickly through the water.

After breakfast we would get ready for our first hike of the day! There were some (me for example) that didn’t go out for a hike and would stay at the lodge to enjoy some peace and quiet. Little did we know that there wouldn’t be much peace. There were bears sauntering around the lodge, sik-siks (ground squirrels) posing for you, bears galore to watch and we even got to go Cloudberry picking! Jeanne had an itch to make fresh cloudberry jam so off we went to pick.

The bears sure had us busy at the lodge during our stay. We had a bear playing with Mike’s boat in the middle of the night (we heard the bear bangers go off), we even had a bear peaking through someone’s window and I am not sure who was more scared the bear or Ida! A few of us were whale watching. We all made our way down to the boats and we were all very excited in anticipation of the Belugas we were going to see.

It was a quick trip to the river and once we arrived you could see these magnificent whales swimming all around. They very quickly came up to the boat to see what we were all about. They would turn over onto their backs and look up at you through the water. It was just amazing!! The next step was to get our first “swimmer” into the water.

Robert was in a dry suit with a snorkel and mask. He was so ecstatic that I think he would have just jumped straight in to see the whales. He was given directions to put his feet into the loop and we would start up the boat. The rest of us were amazed that he was willing to get into the water with these large animals. Turns out I am a big chicken – I just couldn’t get in. We started the boat and started to pull Robert behind us slowly. Our guide Andy told us to just watch – well wouldn’t you know it but whales were coming from all over to check out Robert in the water. They were only a few feet in front, beside and under him!

It is difficult to express what an amazing experience we had. I can give you as much information as you need prior to coming to the lodge but nothing really prepares you for what you are about to experience and enjoy!

Polar bear lodge on Hudson Bay updated for 2009!

Seal River Lodge on Hudson Bay Coast

Polar Bear Lodge on Hudson Bay - Kike Calvo Photo

What can we say but -WOW!! What an amazing season we had in 2008 thanks to all you wonderful people who made the effort to travel to our little Arctic paradise to take part in one of our polar bear wilderness adventures.

We might have to turn down the “volume” a bit as the sheer numbers of incredible “gigabyting” bear and whale sightings got to be a little overwhelming at times! (Websters: gigabyting: the sound made by multiple high speed shutter exposures blending together, usually involving six or more digital cameras. Occasionally applies to singular user if finger has become fixed in full auto mode due to visual over-stimulation.)

There is always a lot of work behind the scenes that goes on prior to the delivery of any great wildlife experience and this past year was no exception. We hope you enjoyed the new bedrooms with en suites as it took more than just a little effort to complete that renovation in time for the opening date in July. The project actually began taking shape with much planning, measuring and sketching going on in July of ‘07 while we were running that year’s Birds, Bears & Belugas program. This was followed by ordering and purchasing materials in fall of 07, shipping them to Churchill via train in January of this year, and finally hauling the 80,000 lbs of building materials to the lodges.

The hauling from Churchill to the lodge took place in April over the sea ice using a D6 Caterpillar and large sleigh which is quite an adventure in itself and soon to be a photo feature on our new web site. We then returned on June 15th with a construction crew of 6 very able bodied men and women who “slaved” many long exhausting hours to be ready for opening day. Stuart put the last coat of paint on at 4 a.m.  six hours before the first guests arrived. Kudos to Len, Real,Yvan, Stuart,Andy,Terry, Riley, Karli and of course the “human forklift” – Barney!

The new rooms still need a few finishing touches and Jeanne has her sites set on a new kitchen and dining room which means we’re starting the whole building project planning over again for 2010!

Spring hauling was a great success, a lot was accomplished, no one got hurt or lost in a “whiteout” (blizzard) and best of all no equipment failures! Four of our Inuit friends from north of the border brought their trusty Bombardiers down from Arvait on the sea ice and managed to haul in 20,000 lbs. in one trip. Talk about a traveling road show, what a riot that was, though Dave and I had a little trouble with the raw beluga, walrus, and caribou offered for lunch and were grateful for the moose meatloaf  Dave had packed for us.

Our Fire & Ice adventure in April, though a bit on the short side, was a huge success.All guests raved about Dave’s awesome cookery, the dogsledding, snowshoeing to the sea ice, northern lights, snowmobiling, and of course the finishing blizzard on the way back to Churchill wasa hit as well!