Local Arctic residents are traveling, hunting, boating and observing wildlife on the land and ocean throughout the year whereas scientists only conduct field studies for a limited time during the summer. “We might get a piece of the puzzle, but we are never going to see the puzzle,” Nweeia says. For example, in Barrow, Alaska, Saint Lawrence Island Yupik whalers helped improve census methods for bowhead whales, telling scientists they could not see all the whales from the edge of the ice, along with sharing insights on bowheads’ ability to swim through the ice where they cannot be seen. Biologists also built on Iñupiaq observations to learn that bowheads possess a sense of smell, unlike most other whales.
In contrast to scientists who seek to isolate and study one variable in the environment, traditional knowledge–holders look for relationships within the whole environment, which helps science explore new territory. Huntington learned from Iñupiaq and Yupik elders that beavers damned streams where fish spawned, hence impacting belugas’ food source in Alaska. “I have yet to meet a biologist telling me with a straight face that he would have anticipated a connection between beavers and beluga,” he says.
Scientific research in remote Arctic regions is expensive and logistically challenging, particularly for species like orcas (killer whales) that cover large areas and cannot be easily surveyed through standard methods. Climate change and the resulting loss of sea ice during the summer have opened new hunting territory for the killer whales in the eastern Canadian Arctic, but scientists knew very little about these animals until they tapped into the traditional knowledge of Inuit hunters who shared unique firsthand descriptions of orca hunting tactics.
“It gives us a real jump start in knowing what to be looking for,” says Steve Ferguson, a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada who led a survey of traditional knowledge on killer whales in Nunavut waters. Learning from Inuit hunters that killer whales use specific methods to hunt bowheads, beluga, narwhal and seals, Ferguson discovered at least two different killer whale groups based on prey preferences.
Sometimes the locals share qualitative, subtle information that challenges scientific minds. Orr recalls that an Inuit hunter once told him that narwhals get cold when holes are made through their backs to fit satellite tags. “I may not necessarily believe that, but I can’t say he is wrong, either,” Orr says. He since then improved the tag design to minimize impacts on the whales.
When Nweeia learned about narwhal molting for the first time, he knew that he had to part with the traditional scientific approach that validates facts through large sample sizes. “These hunters spent their whole lives around narwhal, and the reason why their knowledge is valid and should not be questioned as much is because their lives depend on it.”