Climate threats to polar bears

Polar bears' bodies work 60% harder than thought — which makes surviving climate change even tougher

Polar bears' bodies work 60% harder than thought — which makes surviving climate change even tougher

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. They attached Global Positioning System collars equipped with video cameras and released them back to the wild for 11 days to study how they forage.

"This was at the start of the period from April through July when polar bears catch most of their prey and put on most of the body fat they need to sustain them throughout the year", Pagano said.

It's estimated that Arctic sea ice coverage is declining by about 14 per cent every decade, pushing the bears into new hunting territories that may or may not be productive.

Polar bears are listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species and listed as threatened by the US Endangered Species Act.

The GPS told them the distances the bears wandered, and the video camera recorded if the bears were successful in killing and eating prey.

Though polar bears are known to live a "feast or famine" lifestyle, in which their weight fluctuates considerably, the creatures should have been gaining weight during the period studied, rather than losing it.

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The problem is that many polar bears can't seem to find enough food to satisfy their high energy requirements. The study shows If the bears don't eat that amount of food, they will lose weight quickly.

What the scientists found is that five of the bears lost weight and four of them lost 2.9 to 5.5 pounds (1.3 to 2.5 kilograms) per day.

"The chain of logic that everyone is concerned about is that the melting of sea ice reduces the amount of time that bears get to spend on sea ice in the productive regions where seals are concentrated", said Professor Whiteman, who wrote a commentary in Science.

"The objective was to get a better understanding of what the changes in sea levels are and how they are impacting the polar bears", Anthony Pagano, a lead researcher in the study, told CNN. "Polar bears are reliant on seals for food and seals rely on sea ice". To minimize their energy consumption the bears still-hunt, waiting for hours by seals' cone-shaped breathing holes in the sea ice. However, one bear had her heart set on moving to Canada and traveled roughly 175 miles (280 kilometers) in nine days after we collared her.

"Every piece of evidence shows that polar bears are dependent on sea ice and if we don't change the trajectory of sea ice decline, polar bears will ultimately disappear". Polar bears rely on seals for their huge caloric needs-the four bears that lost 10% of their weight didn't catch a single seal during the study and relied on scavenging-and sea ice is pretty much a requirement for polar bears to catch seals.

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

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Millions have seen the heart-wrenching video of a polar bear clinging to life, its white hair limply covering its thin, bony frame.

But still, "when I see pictures of big glacial blocks breaking away and the sea ice is retreating, I get anxious", Fickel admits.

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.

This polar bear wears a high-tech collar for tracking its behavior, location and hunting success.

So don't give up yet on the powerful polar bear. Our measures of metabolism were considerably higher than previous estimates of polar bear metabolic rates.

Polar bears, the apex predators of the Arctic, need more fat-reach food than previously thought, but melting sea ice in the region makes it hard for them to meet their energy needs, a new research has revealed.

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