Polar bears find it hard to catch enough food, even in the best hunting season
04 February, 2018, 01:19
They assume the bears' hunger for food is greater than previously estimated due to a lack of sea ice; that makes the bears have to roam over greater distances to find and kill prey.
By tracking nine female bears in the Beaufort Sea region off the coast of Alaska last April, the researchers found that the bears' metabolic rates-that is, the amount of energy their bodies require to function-were about 60 percent higher than scientists had previously assumed. We attached high-tech triaxial accelerometers, similar to the technology used in Fitbits, to the collars to help us measure the bears' behavior and activity rate.
"We found that bears that were more active and moved greater distances had higher energy demands than less active bears" says Anthony Pagano, a Research Wildlife Biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Over the course of the study, four of the nine seals did not reach that calorie level and lost a combined mass of 20 kilograms (44 pounds), which "reinforced the starvation lifestyle the polar bears have", Pagano said.
Although polar bears have a larger range than other bears, the study also showed that because of declining sea ice the bears are having to swim and walk further than before to find seals, which increases energy expenditure.
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.
Arctic sea ice is getting thinner every year, and there have been significant losses in the overall area covered by ice, according to the latest data. But because the ice is shrinking, the bears are having a harder time catching seal pups even during prime hunting time, Pagano said.
U.S. scientists captured and fitted collars equipped with Global Positioning System and "bear cam" to nine cub-less female bears.
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Polar bears hunt seals, hence relying on sea ice for their main meal.
Meanwhile, the most recent polar bear population estimate by USGS also indicated almost 40 percent decline over the past decade.
The findings put grim numbers to the reality that polar bears face as sea ice continues to retreat, researchers said. Or they stay on land longer, spending the summer and, increasingly, the fall fasting, living off their fat from the seals they caught in the spring.
But scientists worry that ongoing climate-driven declines in Arctic sea ice, particularly during the warm months of the year, may be affecting the bears' hunting success.
A study of polar bear metabolism conducted near Alaska's Prudhoe Bay has provided more reason to worry about the future of these massive predators that prowl the Arctic.
But understanding the exact relationship between the loss of ice and the plight of the polar bear has been a little murky because it's hard to track the movements of these enormous apex predators in remote regions. During that time the bear crossed into Canada, having walked almost 270 miles (430 kilometers) since her collar had been applied.
"To us, it really stressed the feast-or-famine lifestyle that these bears have", Pagano said.
Since then, however, the nature of threats facing polar bears has changed, and the biggest threats are now the result of human activities that are changing the climate.
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