There's Something Staggering About This Photo

'This is the first record of this species as polar bear prey'
By Brownie Marie,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 12, 2015 4:00 PM CDT
Updated Jun 14, 2015 8:04 AM CDT
There's Something Staggering About This Photo
A male polar bear on the carcass of a white-beaked dolphin April 23, 2014. The bear has started to cover the remains with snow. Just to the left of the dolphin is a hole in the ice, assumed to be a breathing hole that dolphins trapped in the ice have kept open.   (Jon Aars / Norwegian Polar Institute / Polar Research)

They're as graphic as they are "unprecedented," in the words of io9. Photos published in Polar Research earlier this month show a polar bear eating a white-beaked dolphin on a fjord in Svalbard, Norway; the carcass of a second—"little more than the spine, rib cage and skull"—sat nearby. The photos, taken by Norwegian Polar Institute scientist Jon Aars and his team in April 2014, are the first known evidence of the dolphin species as polar bear food. The researchers believe the dolphin pair swam too far north and were trapped under the ice, theorizing they met their deaths when they emerged for air through a hole in the ice. One of the photos shows the bear gnawing on the beak of a largely shredded dolphin.

A second shows another carcass half-covered in snow, perhaps to "decrease the likelihood of other bears, foxes, or gulls scavenging the remains," per the study, though the authors note "caching" isn't thought of as something polar bears usually do. It wasn't an isolated incident: The team spotted at least five more white-beaked dolphin carcasses that summer and fall, and six different bears eating them. Based on the dolphins' location and condition, the researchers believe "they were likely from the same pod and also suffered death due to entrapment in the ice in April." The photos make tangible the effects of a warming Arctic and a changing ecosystem. Dolphins could become a part of the bears' diet, observes Bloomberg, calling it "good news" for bears as their access to seals shrinks. Still, "I don't think that this signifies a great upheaval" in their diet, Aars tells Discovery. (Solar-eclipse tourists better watch out, too.)

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