Scientists Followed 20 Polar Bears. Their Findings Are Grim

The creatures are starving as climate change causes ice melt and they can't access main prey
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 14, 2024 10:55 AM CST
Scientists Followed 20 Polar Bears. Their Findings Are Grim
Stock photo of a polar bear.   (Getty Images/webguzs)

Imagine being a nursing mom who can't produce milk because you're starving, or trying to swim more than 100 miles after not eating for days. Those are just a couple of the scenarios Time notes are now plaguing polar bears in the Arctic as sea ice continues to melt and the icy platforms they use to access their food sources vanish. In new research published Tuesday in Nature Communications, scientists detail how they outfitted 20 polar bears in Manitoba, Canada, with GPS trackers and collars capable of recording video, then tracked them for a three-year period from 2019 to 2022, all with the goal of seeing how the lack of adequate nutrition may be affecting the overall health of the 26,000 or so polar bears that still exist.

AFP notes that during the winter months up north, when there's traditionally been plenty of ice, the polar bears walk across those ice stretches to find blubbery ringed and bearded seals, their main meal. That sea ice recedes when warmer weather arrives, but due to human-caused global warming, these periods of scant ice are becoming longer, forcing the bears to head to land instead for alternate food sources like ducks, geese, berries, and bird eggs. "Polar bears are creative, they're ingenious," Anthony Pagano, a US Geological Survey wildlife biologist who led the study, tells AFP of the vulnerable species. "They will search the landscape for ways to try to survive and find food resources to compensate their energy demands if they're motivated."

The scientists would occasionally find and tranquilize their subjects and analyze their vitals and daily energy expenditure—and what they found was that "the amount of body tissue they were burning to try and find those terrestrial foods was basically the same as what they'd get from eating those terrestrial foods, so there's no actual benefit," Pagano notes, per Time. The researchers note the bears involved in the study lost an average of 2.2 pounds per day.

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As for people who think the polar bears' plight doesn't affect them personally, they might want to rethink that: Polar bears roaming around on land instead of on the ice pose a risk for humans, as the bears are more likely to end up wandering into local towns looking for a bite. "When polar bears are on land, they act like other bears and become omnivores," Pagano notes. "It does raise the potential for human-bear interactions." (More discoveries stories.)

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