Scientists Discover Secret Population Of Polar Bears Living In seemingly impossible habitat
By: April Carson
A hitherto-undiscovered polar bear species in Greenland has been discovered in a perplexingly unsuitable environment: one that, for the most part, lacks the floating platforms of sea ice on which the animals hunt. For hundreds of years, this unusual group has been skulking in plain view.
Scientists have long known about a small, isolated population of around 20,000 polar bears that lives among the fjords of eastern Greenland. These animals are different from other polar bears in several ways: they're smaller, their fur is less white, and they're more likely to eat seals on land than at sea.
The polar bears live on the steep slopes surrounding fjords, which are long and narrow coastal bays where glaciers come into contact with the sea, and they hunt on a patchwork of ice that breaks up in these inlets. The finding suggests that at least some polar bears may be able to adapt to disappearing sea ice as climate change worsens, according to the research.
"It's really the first evidence that polar bears can use this type of habitat," said study author Patrick Joffe, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta in Canada. "They're sort of the forgotten population of polar bears."
Polar bears are one of the animals most affected by climate change. As Arctic sea ice melts, they are forced to travel longer distances to find food and their cubs are more likely to die. Earlier this year, biologists reported that polar bears in the western Hudson Bay region are starving as a result of melting sea ice.
That, however, is not to be considered a silver bullet for the species as a whole. "Polar bears are very much an icon of climate change, and I think what this paper really highlights is that the picture for polar bears is rather more complicated than simply global warming equals the loss of sea ice equals the death of polar bears," said study author Jon Aars, a senior scientist with the Norwegian Polar Institute.
"Glacier ice might assist a few polar bears survive for longer periods under global warming, but it is not accessible to the vast majority of polar bears," according to lead researcher Kristin Laidre, a wildlife scientist at Polar Science Center at the University of Washington. That's because this sort of glacier ice is only found in limited quantities around a tiny percentage of other polar bear populations.
Scientists had previously identified 19 distinct polar bear subpopulations (Ursus maritimus) living in the Arctic Circle. One of these groups covers a distance of 1,988 miles (3,200 kilometers) along Greenland's eastern coast. However, when researchers took a closer look at this group to track its numbers, they discovered that it comprised two completely separate populations.
Genetic analysis of individual bears verified that the southeastern bears were different from their northeastern neighbors, according to researchers who combed 36 years worth of tracking data from GPS-collared polar bears. The line in the other direction was not crossed by any of the southeast Greenland polar bears and none of the northeast Greenland polar bears.
The researchers say a new study published in the journal Science last week provides "the first evidence for a genetically distinct and functionally isolated group of polar bears in southeast Greenland, which meet [the] criteria for recognition as the world's 20th polar bear subpopulation."
This polar bear subpopulation is important because it represents a "last refuge" for the species in the face of climate change, the study's authors say.
"As the sea ice disappears in the Arctic, polar bears are losing their habitat," said study lead author Eline Lorenzen, a researcher with the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and the University of Copenhagen. "Some subpopulations are already extinct or on the brink of extinction."
Polar bears are already struggling to survive as the Arctic warms and sea ice melts. The new study provides further evidence that climate change is taking a toll on the species by fragmenting its population.
The new southeastern population numbers around 300 individuals, but determining an exact count is difficult. The latest group, according to the researchers, is the most genetically diverse of all 20 populations in the Arctic, and genetic comparisons indicate that they have been isolated from the northeastern population for roughly 200 years.
Polar bears are classified as "vulnerable" to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, with roughly 36,000 individuals remaining in the wild. However, due to climate change's impact on their environments, some research have predicted that the species will be extinct by the end of the century.
Polar bears are classified as aquatic mammals because they primarily consume fish, making them fall into a totally different category than terrestrial predators such as wolves. However, in order to hunt for food, the snow-white polar bears must use sea ice as a platform from which to stalk their prey. Unfortunately, rising temperatures linked with climate change have reduced the amount of sea ice available, reducing their natural habitat.
In the Arctic, sea-ice extent waxes and wanes. In the autumn, seasonal ice sheets grow on the ocean's surface and then melt away in the spring. Polar bears can survive for between 100 and 180 days without eating while the sea ice recedes during summer. However, rising temperatures in the Arctic have caused sea ice to melt sooner and freeze later, putting polar bears at risk of starvation.
The fjords where the southeastern polar bears reside are located at the southern extremity of the Arctic Circle, and the area is ice-free for more than 250 days each year. These ice conditions resemble those expected for the rest of the Arctic by the end of this century, according to previous research, which should make these fjords inhospitable to polar bears. But despite these sea ice conditions being unfavorable,
The researchers believe that the polar bears are exploiting glacial mélange, which is the ice debris that falls off the fjord's glaciers and into the sea. The bears could presumably exploit these freshwater ice patches in the same way as they do sea ice to hunt, allowing them to feed themselves during periods when sea ice is uncommon in this region." This implies that marine-terminating glaciers may act as previously unknown climate refugia," according on their findings.
The southeastern population, on the other hand, lives in an isolated region with minimal human populations and is therefore considered difficult to access by most hunters, adding another layer of protection for the bears. The steep gouges of the fjords, on the other hand, may be quite challenging for polar bears to traverse, which might limit their mobility. The birth rate among the newborn group is also significantly lower than that found in previous groups, according to researchers, suggesting that potential mates struggle to meet one another.
In the updated research, the researchers looked at genetic material to identify two possible immigrants from the northeastern population. These migrants seem to have successfully adapted to hunting on glacial mélange, suggesting that other populations might do so as well if sea ice in other regions deteriorates. Other similar sites where polar bears could thrive during a warmer climate were discovered in northern Greenland and Svalbard. However, for a large number of bears, moving to these areas may not be realistic.
Even if the study does provide a sliver of hope for polar bears, the researchers emphasize that this does not make climate change any less of a hazard to Arctic predators. "Loss of Arctic sea ice is still the main threat to all polar bears," Laidre said.
"This research does not alter that." In addition, she emphasized that as sea ice continues to melt throughout the Arctic, the chances of survival are going down for most polar bears.
"We have to remember that this is a species that's in decline," Laidre said. "This should not be taken as a sign that things are OK for polar bears."
The study was published in the journal Science on Thursday.
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