PBS Nature: Arctic Bears
by Laura Tucker
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This season on Nature, the overruling theme seems to be the effects of global warming on different species. While last week we learned how it was negatively affecting the horseshoe crab and red knot birds, this week we’re learning how devastating it is to the arctic bears, and some of them more so than others.
Of the two separate breeds of bears in the Arctic Circle, polar bears seem to have it a little worse than grizzly bears lately, and it’s only because they seemed to “go with the flow” during the ice age. Instead of following a bear’s normal hibernation cycle, polar bears stayed alert, eating and fishing throughout the year, no matter the season, never hibernating, unless they were a pregnant female.
The problem with the polar bears choosing this route, is that now that everything is on thaw, it’s destroying their frozen habitat. Their choices for ice become smaller and smaller each year. In Nature—Arctic Bears, we’re shown how polar bears and grizzly bears differ in living in the changing climate that seems to get warmer and warmer.
Grizzly bears have grown more as foragers. They eat berries and ground squirrels, basically whatever they can find at any given time. They hibernate when it turns cold and play and eat when it’s warm. They can handle many climates. Yet, the polar bears, choosing to remain in the frozen tundra, have always relied on seals they find beneath the frozen waters; these make up over 90% of their diet. When the waters thaw out, and polar bears are forced to swim, they struggle in their fishing, as the seals can swim much faster than they can.
What makes things more difficult for the female bears is they aren’t alone. They are always taking care of a pup or two, or three or four. Throughout all their foraging for a meal, they’re dragging a little pup along with them, and trying to teach them how to find food for themselves someday, but in an ever-changing climate, it becomes more and more difficult.
The polar bears depend so much on the ice, and a fact is shown to us throughout the episode that makes it all that much clearer. While there used to be 50 miles between northern Canada and the Arctic Circle, there is now 200 miles. It’s a much longer swim from one place to another, and often the polar bears don’t have enough fat storage to sustain themselves. Once they get on land, if they make it, you would think they could eat the same as grizzlies do, but they have lived so long on the ice, that they don’t seem to have those same instincts anymore.
It does make you wonder what the future of these animals is. While at one time they seemed to have made a choice to be separated from their cousins the grizzly, their territories are becoming closer and closer, and the polar bears don’t seem to possess the traits to keep them safe and alive. Perhaps they’ll be able to change their makeup and live on non-frozen land much better, and will relearn how to eat berries and ground squirrels like the grizzlies. If they’re going to survive, they’re going to have to.
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