Cannibalism among stressed polar bears?

Nutritional worries from long ice-free seasons may be cause of unusual predatory habits

Posted: Tuesday, June 13, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea may be turning to cannibalism in response to nutritional stresses related to longer ice-free seasons, American and Canadian scientists have concluded.

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The study reviewed three examples of predation from January to April 2004 by polar bears above Alaska and western Canada, including the first ever reported killing of a female in a den shortly after it gave birth to cubs.

Polar bears feed primarily on ringed seals and use sea ice for feeding, mating and maternity denning.

Polar bears kill other bears for population regulation, dominance, and reproductive advantage, the paper said. The most common might be the killing of cubs by a male polar bear to interrupt a female's lactation cycle, said principal author Steven Amstrup of the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center.

Killing for food seems to be less common, he said Monday.

"During 24 years of research on polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea region of northern Alaska and 34 years in northwestern Canada, we have not seen other incidents of polar bears stalking, killing, and eating other polar bears," the scientists said.

Environmentalists contend shrinking polar ice due to global warming may lead to the disappearance of polar bears before the end of the century. The Center for Biological Diversity of Joshua Tree, Calif., in February 2005 petitioned the federal government to list polar bears as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Cannibalism demonstrates the effect on bears, said Kassie Siegal, lead author of the petition.

"It's very important new information," she said. "It shows in a really graphic way how severe the problem of global warming is for polar bears."

Deborah Williams of Alaska Conservation Solutions, a group aimed at pursuing solutions for climate change, said the study represents the "bloody fingerprints" of global warming.

"This is not a Coca-Cola commercial," she said, referring to animated polar bears used in advertising for the soft drink giant. "This represents the brutal downside of global warming."

The predation study was published in an online version of the journal Polar Biology on April 27. A print publication will follow.

Researchers discovered the first kill in January 2004 while searching for bear dens by helicopter with infrared devices on the north shore of Pingok Island northwest of Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. A male bear had pounced on a den, killed a female and dragged it 245 feet away, where it ate part of the carcass. Females are about half the size of males.

"In the face of the den's outer wall were deep impressions of where the predatory bear had pounded its forepaws to collapse the den roof, just as polar bears collapse the snow over ringed seal lairs," the paper said. "From the tracks, it appeared that the predatory bear broke through the roof of the den, held the female in place while inflicting multiple bites to the head and neck. When the den collapsed, two cubs were buried, and suffocated, in the snow rubble."

In April 2004, while following bear footprints on sea ice near Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, scientists discovered the partially eaten carcass of an adult female. Footprints indicated it had been with a cub.

The dead female was a 15-year-old captured and tattooed as a cub in Alaska. Track patterns indicated an adult male had charged the female and cub in an open area roughly 330 by 660 feet.

The male did not follow the cub, indicating it had killed for food instead of breeding.

A few days later, Canadian researchers found the remains of a yearling male 78 miles northwest of Herschel Island. They determined the yearling had been lying on a snow pit on a pressure ridge that provided a view of the surrounding area, a common resting area for females with young. A predatory bear stalked and killed the yearling, they said.

Researchers in spring 2004 found more bears in the eastern portion of the Alaska Beaufort Sea to be in poorer condition than bears in areas to the west and north.

Finding evidence of stalking and killing of three bears within two and a half months was unusual, given the lack of such evidence in previous years.

"We hypothesize that the effect of the ice retreat on polar bears was greater in the southern Beaufort Sea than north near Banks Island. Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears had to spend the summer either on the ice remaining over the deep waters of the polar basin, where oceanic productivity is low, or on land where foraging opportunities are minimal," the paper said.

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