Published: Fri, February 02, 2018
Sci-tech | By Bennie Mills

Not enough seals for Polar Bears to survive

Not enough seals for Polar Bears to survive

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.

"It's quite fascinating to see how the bears are using the habitat and how the habitat is influencing their behaviour, activity patterns and their ability to catch seals, " said lead author Anthony Pagano, a wildlife biologist at the US Geological Service.

Until now, there's been little information available on polar bears' daily energy demands and how they're affected by their day-to-day movements.

They collared nine adult female polar bears on the sea ice of the Beaufort Sea in Alaska with a Global Positioning System video camera and observed the bears for discreet time periods over three consecutive years. Five of the nine bears were unable to achieve this during the research, resulting in plummeting body weight - as much as 20kg during a 10-day study period.

But the scientists found the bear's metabolic rate was 1.6 times greater than previously thought - akin to that of other carnivores. More than half of the bears were decreasing in body mass during their main hunting period, the study found.

They then tracked their hunting strategies and how far they moved as they crossed the Beaufort Sea ice fields in April of 2014, 2015 and 2016. Researchers have also guessed that the bears could reduce their metabolic rate to conserve energy if they failed to catch seals, according to Pagano.

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Analysis of the bears' metabolism revealed they required at least one seal every 10 days to satisfy their dietary needs, but numerous bears were unable to capture enough.

As a scientist, he stresses that we shouldn't go off of gut feelings, but rather reliable data - "and for polar bears, those (data) aren't there yet".

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.

Polar bears rely nearly exclusively on a calorie-loaded diet of seals.

"The bears are moving with the ice and moving into these deeper water areas where it's thought they are having much less opportunity to catch seals".

The findings have scientists anxious about whether polar bears will be able to catch enough prey to meet their unexpectedly high energy needs and sustain their population. The study shows If the bears don't eat that amount of food, they will lose weight quickly.

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That sums up the life of a polar bear.

And polar bears now need more food than in the past, a study found.

In the long run, climate change "will result in smaller bears that produce fewer cubs and that have lower survival rates", Blaine Griffen, a Brigham Young University biology professor who wasn't part of the study said in an email.

The research could help explain some of the population declines scientists have observed in the Beaufort Sea region over the last decade or so. It has been hard, however, for researchers to study the fundamental biology and behavior of polar bears in this very remote and harsh environment, Pagano said.

In the Beaufort Sea, where the study was undertaken, previous monitoring has identified a 40 per cent decline in polar bear numbers from 2001 to 2010.

Still, he said, the study backs up others looking at how polar bears are coping with shrinking sea ice, their favourite hunting platform.

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"Two-thirds of the world's polar bears could die out by 2050", cautions WWF, demanding an immediate decline in greenhouse gas emissions so the bears can stand a chance of survival.

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