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Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Starved polar bear perished due to record sea-ice melt

Climate change has reduced ice in the Arctic to record lows in the past year, forcing animals to range further in search of food



A starved polar bear found found dead in Svalbard as "little more than skin and bones" perished due to a lack of sea ice on which to hunt seals, according to a polar bear expert.
Climate change has reduced sea ice in the Arctic to record lows in the last year and Dr Ian Stirling, who has studied the bears for almost 40 years and examined the animal, said the lack of ice forced the bear into ranging far and wide in an ultimately unsuccessful search for food.
"From his lying position in death, the bear appears to simply have starved and died where he dropped," Stirling said. "He had no external suggestion of any remaining fat, having been reduced to little more than skin and bone."
The bear had been examined by scientists from the Norwegian Polar Institute in April in the southern part of Svalbard, an Arctic island archipelago, and appeared healthy. The same bear had been captured in the same area in previous years, suggesting that the discovery of its body, 250km away in northern Svalbard, represented an unusual movement away from its normal range. The bear probably followed the fjords inland as it trekked north, meaning it may have walked double or treble that distance.
Polar bears feed almost exclusively on seals and need sea ice to capture their prey. But 2012 saw the lowest level of sea ice in the Arctic on record. Prond Robertson, at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, said: "The sea ice break up around Svalbard in 2013 was both fast and very early." He said recent years had been poor for ice around the islands: "Warm water entered the western fjords in 2005-06 and since then has not shifted."
Stirling, now at Polar Bears International and previously at the University of Alberta and the Canadian Wildlife Service, said: "Most of the fjords and inter-island channels in Svalbard did not freeze normally last winter and so many potential areas known to that bear for hunting seals in spring do not appear to have been as productive as in a normal winter. As a result, the bear likely went looking for food in another area but appears to have been unsuccessful."
A thin female Polar Bear wearing a radio collar for tracking on Spitsbergen, Svalbard, NorwayScientists are tracking polar bears with radio collars in Svalbard, Norway, to monitor their search for food. Photograph: Ashley Cooper/Global Warming Images
Research published in May showed that loss of sea ice was harming the health, breeding success and population size of the polar bears of Hudson Bay, Canada as they spent longer on land waiting for the sea to refreeze. In February, a panel of polar bear experts published a paper stating that rapid ice loss meant options such the feeding of starving bears by humans needed to be considered to protect the 20,000-25,000animals that remain.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature's expert group states that of the 19 populations of polar bear around the Arctic, data is available for 12. Of those, eight are declining, three are stable and one is increasing.
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