The polar bears’ fight for food

Research shows that due to rising temperatures in the Arctic, polar bears are at risk of starvation as they travel long distances in search of food without success.

In a world where climate change is rapidly changing natural habitats, polar bears have become a symbol of the fight for survival.

Summers are getting longer, the temperature on the planet is rising and there is less and less ice. As the frozen layers of the Arctic disappear, bears are spending more time on land, where it is harder to find food because their traditional hunting strategy on sea ice is less effective.

An investigation published in the magazine Nature communication describes the challenges facing the world’s 25,000 remaining polar bears to avoid famine.

In late spring and early summer, polar bears use the sea ice as a hunting ground. They feed primarily on seals and give birth and wean their young in the same season. As the ice melts, the Arctic giants need to slow down as much as possible to conserve energy.

Study polar bears

A team of scientists led by US Geological Survey biologist Anthony Pagano closely observed polar bears for three weeks during the summer. To do this, they installed cameras and GPS collars on 20 bears in western Hudson Bay, Manitoba, Canada.

The region’s population has declined by about 30% since 1987 and ice-free periods have increased by three weeks since 1979, resulting in bears staying on land for about 130 days in the last decade.

After analyzing the photos, they found that the bears tried different tactics to forage for food and maintain their energy reserves, including scavenging and resting at similar levels to grizzly bears when they go into hibernation.

70% of those active ate terrestrial foods such as berries, grass and bird carcasses. Three bears ventured long distances underwater in search of food, and although two of them found the remains of a beluga and a seal, they were unable to eat while swimming or bring them to land.

Polar bears in danger

polar bears

Regardless of diet and rest strategies, their body weight continued to decrease: 19 out of 20 people lost an average of 1 kg per day. ““A further increase in the length of summer on land will be associated with an increased risk of hunger,” says Pagano. “Neither strategy will allow polar bears to exist on land beyond a certain period of time. Even the bears that were foraging lost weight just as quickly as those that were lying down.adds Charles Robbins, director of the Bear Center at Washington State University and co-author of the study.

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It has been suggested that polar bears may adapt to ice-free seasons by foraging on land. However, research shows that these are not easy to find and do not provide them with the nutrients and energy they need, so they end up almost dying. of hunger. David Nogués Bravo, a macroecologist at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate, who was not involved in the study, explains that food shortages “reduces survivability to maintain generational changeand added: “Terrestrial foods gave them some energy advantage, but ultimately they had to expend more energy to get these resources“.

The Arctic ice sheet reaches its minimum in September every year and becomes increasingly smaller than the previous year. According to data from multiple NASA satellites, the extent of the polar ice cap has decreased by 12.6% per decade since 1980. A 2023 study, based on observations from NASA and ESA satellites, predicts that the first ice-free September will occur between 2030 and 2050. And if greenhouse gas emissions do not decline, the Arctic region will be ice-free for six months by the year 2100.

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The study results have important implications for polar bear conservation, but also encourage us to examine their impacts on Arctic marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Noguez said the presence of these animals, which hunt on land for longer periods of time, has a domino effect on other species such as birds.

The fact that polar bears are threatened with extinction is nothing new. What is surprising is the sharp decline in the number of young born and the starvation adults are facing due to melting sea ice.

“”I’ve seen polar bears in the Arctic and it’s getting darker to witness this species’ path to likely extinction in the not-too-distant future.” says Nogués, who emphasizes that it is important to keep in mind that “The biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are not two different crises, but rather two sides of the same coin“.

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