Polar bears are starving as Arctic ice melts, warns United States study

04 February, 2018, 01:23 | Author: Andrea Terry
  • Polar bears find it hard to catch enough food, even in the best hunting season

Polar bears can readily hunt seals on sea ice, but it's much more hard to catch the prey when the ice is gone and bears end up expending energy by traveling over greater distances.

Although the study results seemingly reflect the roughly 40 percent decline in polar bear populations seen in this part of the Arctic, the study was not broad enough to draw large conclusions.

Pinning down that figure is an important step in understanding what is happening to polar bears now and in the future with climate change, said polar ecologist John P Whiteman of the University of New Mexico.

In 2015, after working with the accelerometer manufacturer, we managed once again to deploy 4 Global Positioning System video camera collars with triaxial accelerometers on polar bears.

While the recent study might be bad news, it doesn't automatically mean the end for polar bears, comments Jörns Fickel, a evolution geneticist at the Leibniz institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. But he added, "I think it confirms all the reasons to be concerned about polar bears from a conservation perspective are intact".

Scientists monitoring the creatures activity in the Arctic found they have far higher energy demands than previously thought.

By comparing the bears' blood samples before and after, they could calculate the amount of carbon dioxide that the animal had produced, and thus its metabolic rate. But because the ice is shrinking, the bears are having a harder time catching seal pups even during prime hunting time, Pagano said.

The study presents "kind of a snapshot of what the bears are doing during this one time of year, in the month of April, when we're able to do our field work", said lead study author Anthony Pagano, a research wildlife biologist and polar bear expert with the U.S. Geological Survey. When we recovered them, we had collected eight to 11 days of footage showing polar bears' behavior on sea ice from a bear's point of view, which we could link with the animals' energy expenditures.


To measure the animals' energy expenditure, they dosed the bears with doubly labeled water - water molecules whose hydrogen and oxygen atoms had been replaced with heavier isotopes with extra neutrons. "As a result, bears showed remarkable fluctuations in body mass based on their foraging success, emphasizing the feast or starvation lifestyle of these animals". One bear lost 51 pounds (23 kilograms) in just nine days.

The findings put grim numbers to the reality that polar bears face as sea ice continues to retreat, researchers said.

This polar bear wears a high-tech collar for tracking its behavior, location and hunting success. "This study identifies the mechanisms that are driving those declines by looking at the actual energy needs of polar bears and how often they're able to catch seals". A few of the bears travelled more than 155 miles (250 kilometers) in about 10 days off the northern coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea, Pagano said.

"This is an excellent paper that fills in a lot of missing information about polar bears", said Amstrup, who was not involved in the USGS research.

"We found that polar bears actually have much higher energy demands than predicted".

The study suggests that as Arctic sea ice diminishes and becomes more fragmented, it will further impact the energetic balance of polar bears by reducing their access to seal prey and by increasing their cost of travel.

So don't give up yet on the powerful polar bear.

Previous studies estimate the mortality of male polar bears would increase from 6 per cent to 48 per cent if fasting periods increased from 120 days to 180 days.

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