Health Care

Polar bears could face extinction faster than thought, study says

A polar bear with a GPS-video collar

High-tech collars on the bears recorded video, locations, and activity levels over a period of eight to 11 days, while metabolic tracers enabled the team to determine how much energy the bears expended.

The findings have scientists anxious about whether polar bears will be able to catch enough prey to meet their unexpectedly high energy needs and sustain their population. At the same time, a number of polar bear populations have been on the decline - for example, dropping by about 40 percent in the Beaufort Sea in the course of a decade.

But as the global temperature is rising, polar bears can face more trouble in future. They fitted the bears with collars carrying Global Positioning System trackers, accelerometers and video cameras.

As an apex predator in the Arctic (at the top of a food chain) the polar bear is a key component of the region's ecosystem but this new study confirms other studies showing climate could have a serious adverse effect on their survival. But he added, "I think it confirms all the reasons to be concerned about polar bears from a conservation perspective are intact". There, Arctic warming means the sea ice is breaking up earlier in the summer and returning later in the fall, forcing bears to spend more time on land.

Four other bears lost up to 10 percent of their body mass over the same period, the result of not catching seals.

"We've been documenting declines in polar bear survival rates, body condition, and population numbers over the past decade", says lead author Anthony Pagano, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California Santa Cruz, quoted in a press release.

Polar bears could be sliding towards extinction faster than previously feared, with the animals facing an increasing struggle to find enough food to survive as climate change steadily transforms their environment. "The next step is to use this information to really start to quantify how changes in movement patterns might be affecting the energy demands of these bears".

Canada, home to two-thirds of the world's population of roughly 30,000 polar bears, has done a good job surveying subpopulations, making sure the polar bear trade is legally regulated, and incorporating traditional knowledge into polar bear management, the WWF said.

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Satellite telemetry shows several tagged polar bears moving long distances to remain on receding sea ice in July 2016.

The animals need to eat on average one adult (up to 70kg) or three subadult ring seals every 10 days to maintain their condition, and this hunting requires sea ice.

The huge glacial ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are reacting more slowly to the warming atmosphere and oceans but scientists are watching them closely as they will heavily influence sea level rise if there's significant melting.

Mr Pagano and his collaborators monitored the behaviour, hunting success and metabolic rates of bears as they hunted on the sea ice in the spring. The remote location has made it hard for scientists to study the bears' movement and activities until now.

So don't give up yet on the powerful polar bear.

Photos of skinny and emaciated polar bears are more common as their food disappears

Unfortunately, with the rapid environmental changes occurring in Arctic sea ice, the specialisation that once allowed polar bears to live in this challenging habitat has painted the animals into a physiological corner and led to devastating consequences.

Previous studies estimate the mortality of male polar bears would increase from 6 per cent to 48 per cent if fasting periods increased from 120 days to 180 days.