"I think it's remarkable that they're so early," said Jon Aars, a researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute. For many years he has researched polar bears in Svalbard and he knows their behavior well.
Aars was interviewed for a March 7 article in Svalbardposten about an unusual number of polar bear sightings at Mohnbukta and Dunérbukta the previous weekend. The researcher had not seen the picture of the polar bear family at the time. He has subsequently studied the picture along with colleagues at the Norwegian Polar Institute and all of them have responded. Some also contacted to clarify there is no longer any talk about it being an old photo.
There are several reasons why the picture turns heads:
• The picture was taken March 1 and based of the color of their coats it appears the polar bears had been out of their den for at least one week.
• If the cubs are newborns they were born in winter, which is extremely early.
• If the cubs are a year old they are extremely small. Normally by this time they should be about half as large as the mother, but they are much smaller.
VIDEO: The polar bear family
Many weeks early
Several researchers questioned whether the photo was taken a year ago, but there were several witnesses at the observation site. Information from the camera chip also shows it was taken at 2 p.m. March 1 on a Saturday, matching this year's calendar.
When Aars sees the photo where one of the kids is stretched out to its full body size and the relationship between the young and the mother becomes apparent, as their faces are easily seen simultaneously, he is also certain the cubs are newborns.
"It is a month early," he said.
"They are also white in the fur and have probably been out of the den for a week," he added. "It is not so surprising if females come out in the middle of March. Most come out between March 20 and April 20."
Several people were along for the March 1 ride when they observed at least eight polar bears on the west coast of Spitsbergen. One of them was Ronny Brunvoll, travel manager for Svalbard Tourism.
"There was a female bear with cubs completely concealed by the ice and it was more of a coincidence that we saw it," he said at the time. "Those that stood out on the ice were easy to see, a female bear lying is harder to spot."
Among others who have seen the picture is film producer Jason Roberts who, like Aars, concludes the cubs are two to three months old.
"I think they are newborns who are very early," he said. "It is something of a commentary that little ice is tough for bears. This she-bear is amazing in that she has given birth early and is so good with them."
Record heat in February
Meanwhile, this winter has seen record warmth in Svalbard. According to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, the average temperature in February was 15 degrees Celsius above normal. Aars isn't speculating why a female bear with two small cubs came out of the den. He isn't ruling out it could be the start of behavioral changes as a result of climate change.
"It could very well be that," he said. "And is it clear is anything happens to the den it can dictate what they do and when they go out. But it is also important what is happening with the seals."
The researchers followed 19 animals in Svalbard using transmitters and they know the behavior of polar bears. If the den has been destroyed by mild weather they come out, but if the she-bear feels it is too early she digs a new lair. Moreover, polar bears remain seven to ten days at a den before leaving it.
Norwegian Polar Institute researchers have also started to attach transmitters to females to, among other things, determine if light is what causes them to crawl out of the den.
"Had the mother been wearing one, I would have seen when the mother had gone out of the den," Aars said.