Five of the nine polar bears studied did not catch enough seals to maintain their body mass when hunting on sea iceMARIO HOPPMANN AFP GETTY IMAGES
02 February, 2018, 21:30
"They don't move a whole lot so they're basically laid out as one big buffet for the bear to go around".
"It's quite fascinating to see how the bears are using the habitat and how the habitat is influencing their behaviour, activity patterns and their ability to catch seals, " said lead author Anthony Pagano, a wildlife biologist at the US Geological Service.
Nine female polar bears were fitted for eight to 11 days in April of 2014, 2015 and 2016 with high-tech collars that provided satellite tracking of their movements and captured video to observe behavior and hunting success, U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist Anthony Pagano said.
Climate change is having a dramatic impact on Arctic sea ice, forcing polar bears to travel greater distances and making it more hard for them to catch prey.
Even though the Arctic should be flush with seal pups in the month of April, the researchers found numerous bears were spending more energy chasing down prey than they consumed.
The GPS told them the distances the bears wandered, and the video camera recorded if the bears were successful in killing and eating prey.
The article published by USGS after the two year study established that more than half of the bears lost body mass, meaning they were spending energy chasing food and not consuming enough.
Experts estimate the total polar bear population at between 22,000 and 31,000.
"In the Beaufort Sea we are seeing that the ice is retreating much further to the north than it had historically", Mr Pagano said.
While the conclusions of Pagano's study may be grim for polar bears, he was buoyed by the fact that technology is finally able to give them concrete reasons for the loss of these charismatic creatures.
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. So by taking blood and urine samples before and after the observation period, the researchers could track how much the polar bears had been working. The average bear female burned about 13,200 calories a day - six times more than an active human female.
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"We found that polar bears actually have much higher energy demands than predicted", Pagano said.
This April 20, 2015 photo provided by Busch Gardens shows a polar bear wearing a Global Positioning System video-camera collar lying on a chunk of sea ice in the Beaufort Sea. Because of the video footage, the researchers know that these bears gained weight because they caught seals. There, Arctic warming causes sea ice to break up earlier in the summer and return later in the fall, which forces the bears to spend more time on land.
Fickel points out that the species has seen many warmer periods during their existence, and that they might be able to adjust to a warmer world - as long as there is a healthy seal population, that is.
However, it has been hard for scientists to analyze the behavior and fundamental biology of the bears in this harsh and remote environment, according to Pagano.
"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 high energy requirements of polar bears corroborate previous hypotheses that most terrestrial Arctic habitats, lacking prey as energy-rich as marine mammals, can not provide enough food for polar bears driven to shore by loss of sea ice", Whiteman wrote in a commentary on the paper.
Professor Whiteman said it was important to understand what happens when the bears are fasting.
The loss of sea ice has a domino effect on the species, which, in 2008, became the first animal listed under the Endangered Species Act due to threats from climate change.
"When you're talking about some places extending their melt season to double digits by the end of the decade we're not that far out from that kind of lengthening of the melt period in some parts of the Arctic", he said.
"While the Canadian government has made impressive progress in polar-bear science and policy, there is only so much that can be done on such a limited budget".
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