Climate change may have altered the diet of Norwegian polar bears

Due to melting sea ice, the king of the Arctic may have been forced to change its diet in recent decades, scientists have said.

Pictured is a a polar bear and its cub.
Researchers believe that climate change has affected the diets of polar bears, pictured above, in Svalbard. Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

A polar bear chases a reindeer into the water, drags it ashore and devours it, in a striking scene caught on film for the first time.

The dramatic spectacle played out in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago on August 21, 2020 — in summer, the sea ice retreats and takes with it the seals that make up the polar bear’s main source of food.

 A research team from a nearby Polish scientific station watched it happen and caught for the first time on camera a polar bear hunting a reindeer.

The video shows a young female chasing a male reindeer into the icy waters, catching and drowning it, then pulling it on shore and making a meal of it.

“The whole situation was so amazing that it was like watching a documentary,” said Izabela Kulaszewicz, a biologist at the University of Gdansk.

“You could almost hear the voice of a narrator in the background saying that you absolutely have to watch this event because we will most likely never see anything like it again,” she told AFP.

Down to ‘modern media’ ?

The scene was so unusual that she co-wrote  Polar Biology with two other researchers. In it, they argued that the incident was one of a series of observations that suggest polar bears are increasingly preying on terrestrial animals to make up for their limited access to seals.

In Svalbard, just over 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) from the North Pole and where signposts warn of the danger of polar bears, some 300 sedentary bears live alongside around 20,000 reindeer.

According to the article’s authors, there are indications that polar bears have been hunting reindeer more frequently in recent decades.

They say that two factors are at play: the retreating sea ice is stranding the bears on land for longer periods, and the number of reindeer has been steadily rising on Svalbard since a 1925 hunting ban.

Eating reindeer is therefore a matter of both necessity and opportunity for the furry white beast, they suggest. However, other experts caution against reading too much into the incident.

“If polar bears were killing reindeer back in the 1950s and 60s, it would have been very rare to have been seen, as there were few people, few bears, and few reindeer” in Svalbard at the time, said Andrew Derocher, a professor at the University of Alberta.

“Now, with modern media, everyone has a camera, social media and the ‘news’ spreads fast,” he added.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about the ‘Norwegian Galapagos’ islands

Opportunistic hunters

While high-fat, high-calorie ringed and bearded seals make up their main diet, polar bears are also known to feed on eggs, birds, rodents and even dolphins.

Weighing between 70 and 90 kilos (155 and 200 pounds) as adults, reindeer would be a good complement for the bears during the lean summer period, which has grown longer due to global warming.

Two days after the Polish researchers filmed their video, the same polar bear was observed devouring another reindeer carcass.

“Reindeer can be important, at least for some polar bears when they have to stay on land for extended periods,” said Norwegian expert Jon Aars, co-author of the article.

Experts note, however, that the new diet would not make a difference in bolstering the animal’s population size.

“While an occasional successful predation attempt on reindeer may be good in the short-term for an individual bear or two (and the media), I think there is little significance at the population level for either polar bears or reindeer,” said professor Ian Stirling, of the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Polar bears are strong swimmers — their Latin name is Ursus maritimus — but they can’t keep up with reindeer on long distances on land.

Elsewhere in the Arctic, caribou — as North American reindeer are known — are not as vulnerable as their Svalbard cousins, whose wariness seems to have dissipated since the hunting ban.

Caribou “are also larger animals and have co-evolved with land predators, namely wolves, wolverines, and barren ground grizzlies, making them more challenging prey,” said Geoff York, of conservation organisation Polar Bears International.

The future looks especially ominous for Svalbard’s polar bears.

“There’s not enough ice to sustain a polar bear population,” Derocher said.

“I suspect that given the trend, the Barents Sea polar bear population — which includes Svalbard — is one that will disappear this century.”

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France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought – conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.

“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and … adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.

The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.

“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.

In total, 361 foreign firefighters were  dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.

A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.

Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.

It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July – the driest month seen in France since 1961 – before being contained, but it continued to smoulder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.

Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.

“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.

On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.

“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.

With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40C on Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.

Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.

The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the centre of the country.

It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).