Rare hunting scene raises questions about polar bear diet

Oslo (AFP) – A polar bear chases a reindeer through water, drags it to the ground and devours it, in a gripping scene filmed for the first time.

As the sea ice melts, the King of the Arctic could change his diet.

The dramatic spectacle that took place in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard on August 21, 2020 – in summer the pack ice recedes and carries with it the seals which are the main food source of the polar bear.

A research team from a nearby Polish science station observed it and for the first time filmed a polar bear chasing a reindeer.

The video shows a young female chasing a male reindeer in the icy waters, grabbing and drowning it, then pulling it to the shore and having a meal.

“The whole situation was so incredible 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 we absolutely have to watch this event because we will probably never see anything like it again,” she told AFP.

Up 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 part of a series of sightings suggesting that polar bears are increasingly preying on land animals to compensate for their limited access to seals.

In Svalbard, just over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the North Pole and where there are signs warning of polar bear danger, some 300 sedentary bears live alongside around 20,000 reindeer.

In Svalbard, just over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the North Pole, some 300 sedentary polar bears rub shoulders with around 20,000 reindeer Olivier MORIN AFP / File

According to the authors of the article, there are indications that polar bears have hunted reindeer more frequently in recent decades.

They say two factors are at play: receding sea ice blocks bears on land for longer periods of time, and the number of reindeer has steadily increased in Svalbard since a hunting ban in 1925.

Eating reindeer is therefore both a necessity and an opportunity for the white furry beast, they suggest.

However, other experts warn against over-reading the incident.

“If polar bears were killing reindeer in the 1950s and 1960s it would have been very rare to see them because there were few people, few bears and few reindeer” in Svalbard at the time, said Andrew Derocher, professor at the University of Alberta.

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

– Opportunistic hunters –

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

Weighing between 70 and 90 kilograms (155 and 200 pounds) as adults, reindeer would be a good addition for bears during the summer lean season, which has lengthened due to global warming.

Two days after 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 long periods of time,” said Norwegian expert Jon Aars, co-author of the article.

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

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

Polar bears are good swimmers – their Latin name is Ursus maritimus – but they cannot follow reindeer long distances on land.

Elsewhere in the Arctic, caribou – as North American reindeer are called – are not as vulnerable as their cousins ​​in Svalbard, whose suspicion seems to have dissipated since the hunting ban.

Caribou “are also larger animals and have co-evolved with terrestrial predators, namely wolves, wolverines and barren-ground grizzly bears, making them more difficult prey,” said Geoff York, of the Polar Bears International conservation organization.

Highlights on the polar bear, the arctic's supreme predator
Highlights on the polar bear, the arctic’s supreme predator Jonathan WALTER AFP

The future looks particularly worrying for the polar bears of Svalbard.

“There isn’t enough ice to support a population of polar bears,” Derocher said.

“I suspect that given the trend, the Barents Sea population of polar bears – which includes Svalbard – is one that will disappear during this century. “

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