Metabolism study signals more trouble ahead for polar bears

Polar bears' bodies work 60% harder than thought — which makes surviving climate change even tougher

Polar bears find it hard to catch enough food, even in the best hunting season

This is an adult female polar bear on the sea ice wearing a Global Positioning System satellite video-camera collar. The bears were fitted with Global Positioning System collars that had cameras to record point-of-view videos of each. These collars enabled researchers to understand the movements, behaviors, and foraging success of polar bears on the sea ice.

"We've been documenting declines in polar bear survival rates, body condition, and population numbers over the past decade", the study's first author Anthony Pagano, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a statement.

Polar bears rely on energy-rich foods such as ring seals to bulk up in spring and summer to survive the lean times when they're fasting. And every additional mile that a polar bear has to traverse under its own power is that much more food the bear has to eat. "Unfortunately, with the rapid environmental changes occurring in Arctic sea ice, the specialization that once allowed polar bears to live in this challenging habitat has painted the animals into a physiological corner and led to devastating consequences", said wildlife eco-physiologist Terrie Williams, a study co-author who heads the university's Center for Marine Mammal Research and Conservation.

What the scientists found is that five of the bears lost weight and four of them lost 2.9 to 5.5 pounds (1.3 to 2.5 kilograms) per day.

"This was at the start of the period from April through July when polar bears catch most of their prey and put on most of the body fat they need to sustain them throughout the year", Pagano said.

Scientists studying the metabolism of free-ranging polar bears in the Arctic have found out why the loss of sea ice is hurting their survival: They burn calories at a faster rate than previously thought.

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Polar bears hunt from the ice.

Polar bears rely nearly exclusively on a fat-rich diet of seals, which are most efficiently hunted from the surface of sea ice.

As the Arctic heats up and more sea ice melts, polar bears must move farther than in past years.

"The bears are moving with the ice and moving into these deeper water areas where it's thought they are having much less opportunity to catch seals".

Sea ice is drifting further north so polar bears travel further to hunt.

In other areas like Hudson Bay, the sea ice is breaking up earlier in the summer and returning later in the fall, which has forced the polar bears to spend more time on land. As they move greater distances, they use up more energy which they find harder to replenish, for which the primary source is seals.

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The researchers monitored the bears' activity levels and metabolic rates while they hunted.

Dangling from the neck of a polar bear, viewers can see them playfully chasing other bears, hunting seals and diving into the water.

Anthony Pagano, USGS Research Wildlife Biologist, said: 'It's really quite fascinating to learn the basic behaviours of these animals and how they're using the sea-ice environment, and how dynamic the sea-ice environment is and how their behaviour might change from year to year based on the sea ice conditions that they're experiencing'. By fall, however, young seals are older and wiser, and the bears can not catch as many of them. A few of the bears travelled more than 155 miles (250 kilometres ) in about 10 days off the northern coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea, Pagano said.

Meanwhile, the most recent polar bear population estimate by USGS also indicated almost 40 percent decline over the past decade. The agency's most recent population estimate suggests the bears have declined by about 40 percent over the past decade.

But understanding the exact relationship between the loss of ice and the plight of the polar bear has been a little murky because it's hard to track the movements of these enormous apex predators in remote regions.

"In the Beaufort Sea we are seeing that the ice is retreating much further to the north than it had historically", Mr Pagano said.

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