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Polar bears might be worse off than we thought, study finds

02 February 2018

"I hope we will have an awakening, but we haven't really done much to save polar bears over the past decade", said Amstrup.

Polar bears, already struggling as climate change melts Arctic sea ice, need more food to survive than previously thought, USA researchers said Thursday.

The decline of Arctic sea ice amid global climate change is making polar bears travel farther to find prey such as ringed seals.

The scientists also analysed blood and urine samples taken at the beginning and end of each bear's 8-11 day journey across the ice fields to ascertain the animal's metabolic rate.

"Our study reveals polar bears' utter dependence on seals", said lead author Anthony Pagano, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Using high-tech collars that monitored behavior, hunting success and metabolic rates, the researchers followed nine female polar bears without cubs through springtime, as the animals went hunting on sea ice over Beaufort Sea.

"This study is a handsome example of how animals are built to live in synchrony with their environment".

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Moreover, on the ice, the polar bears burn up 60% more energy than previously thought, according to these real-life measurements done by the scientists. That's why the melting of the Arctic sea ice threatens polar bear survival.

How did Pagano and his colleagues prove that it's harder for polar bears to find food in a world with less sea ice? Five of the bears lost body mass, as they were not catching enough fat-rich marine mammals to meet their energy requirements.

It had been thought that polar bears could conserve energy by using a "sit and wait" technique, where they hang around a hole until an unsuspecting seal comes along and they pounce on it. "Eventually, you run out of gas".

How many seals does a polar bear need to eat to maintain a healthy weight?

"This is an excellent paper that fills in a lot of missing information about polar bears", said Amstrup, who was not involved in the USGS research.

Using the Global Positioning System and video collars and the metabolic information, the researchers determined that the more a bear had to search for food the more energy it used.

"In the Beaufort Sea we are seeing that the ice is retreating much further to the north than it had historically", Mr Pagano said.

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In the Beaufort Sea, for example, the polar bears are forced to move much greater distances than they previously did as the Arctic warms and more sea ice melts.

The farther the bears have to travel to get on the ice to hunt the more weight they lose.

From an evolutionary point of view, a loss in body weight in some animals doesn't necessarily mean that the total number of polar bears will decline, Fickel stresses.

What makes it even more alarming is the fact that the bears were struggling to find food at the start of the period from April through July when these animals catch most of their prey and put on most of the body fat that help them sustain throughout the year.

But the report does conclude with one seemingly inescapable conclusion for polar bears facing the same situation as those studied. 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.

"We found a feast and starvation lifestyle - if they missed out on seals it had a pretty dramatic effect on them", said Anthony Pagano, a USGS biologist who led the research, published in Science. The agency's most recent population estimate suggests the bears have declined by about 40 percent over the past decade.

"As a nation, we've spent the past few years doing the necessary groundwork, but now it's time for Canada to step up and tackle some of the more complex and expensive problems", said Megan Leslie, president and CEO of WWF-Canada, in a release on the 52-page document released earlier this week.

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Best estimates say there are 20,000 to 30,000 polar bears in 19 different groups or populations scattered across the top of the U.S., Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russian Federation.

Polar bears might be worse off than we thought, study finds