In Memoriam: Ian Sterling

September 26, 1941 – May 14, 2024

Ian Stirling, a prominant Canadian biologist, is known around the world for his work with polar bears. His studies of marine mammals and their ecology also included seals, whales and walruses and took him to all seven continents. Ian credited his extensive work in both polar regions for enabling a unique perspective to interpret how these animals adapt their behaviour and physiology to suit the different challenges of their environment. In turn, this understanding led Ian to study and speak about the vulnerability of Arctic ecosystems to habitat loss and climate change.

Ian’s first polar bear behaviour studies began on the high clifftops of Caswell Tower on Devon Island and Lancaster Sound in 1973, and later on Cape Liddon. Perched on a lawn chair with binoculars and telescope, Ian recorded meticulous observations in red-covered government notebooks. His wife, Stella, joined the inaugural season at Caswell Tower, and Ian was always quick to mention she spotted the first polar bear. He enjoyed collaborating with colleagues, students and others on scientific endeavours. Throughout his career he befriended and consulted Inuit people of the north, gaining insight into their experiences of polar bear behaviour. Technology evolved over time, but the data set of observations from almost 30 years of field study is still being mined today for meaning and scientific papers.

Over his career, Ian authored or co-authored more than 250 peer-reviewed articles in science journals and five books about polar bears for the general public. He was a proud member of the Society for Marine Mammalogy and served as president from 1996 to 1998. He contributed generously to public knowledge of the Arctic through Polar Bears International and was grateful for their advocacy for Arctic research.

As adjunct professor at the University of Alberta for more than 30 years, Ian lectured annually on Arctic ecology. Looking back on his research career, Ian felt proud of mentoring graduate students. He supervised or co-supervised 16 graduate students, who continue to contribute to research in wildlife ecology.

For his work, he was honoured with several awards, including the Canadian Northern Science Award, Officer of the Order of Canada, elected as Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Norris Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Society for Marine Mammalogy, the Weston Family Prize for Lifetime achievement in Northern Research, and honorary doctorates of science from the universities of Alberta and British Columbia.

After retirement, Ian worked in the Arctic and Antarctic as tour guide and naturalist and continued to publish papers and record new observations of polar bears, especially in Svalbard, and crabeater and Weddell seals in Antarctica.

He will be greatly missed!!

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