Monthly Archives: January 2016

Polar bears rarely come ashore in January but one did on Tuesday

Polar Bear stock image gg66298544_sm

In a life-mimics-fiction moment, this report appeared Tuesday morning (26 January) in The Telegram newspaper in Newfoundland:

“The RCMP is warning the public after reports were received of a polar bear in Tilting. Fresh bear tracks were seen in the Fogo Island community Tuesday.”

Tilting is a small town on the eastern shore of Fogo Island (see map below): Fogo Island sits off the northeast shore of Newfoundland (and is featured prominently in my new polar bear attack novel). Fogo Island lays at about the same latitude as London, England. The CBC, Canada’s national news outlet, also ran the story.

Fogo_on Fogo Island Newfoundland details

A government public advisory issued yesterday stated:

“Residents are cautioned following reported sightings of polar bears tracks near the community of Titling, on the eastern end of Fogo Island. Conservation officers confirmed the tracks to be within one kilometre of the community and believe the polar bear has since returned to saltwater. [my bold]

Polar bears are not usually seen onshore in Newfoundland until late March or April (previous stories here and here), after the ice has been close to shore for week and bears have feed extensively on newborn harp and hooded seal pups. Bears that come ashore in January – well before seal pups are born in spring (late February/mid-March) – can potentially be very dangerous because they are likely very hungry. None of the reports of this sighting gave any indication of the probable age of this bear. However, it must be kept in mind that young bears (3-5 years old) are more apt to be in a desperate state at this time of year.

Or, perhaps the bear caught interesting smells coming from shore and decided to take a short swim to check it out. The sea ice was still offshore at the time (see maps in yesterday’s post) but clearly, not too far off for the bear to swim. There may have been icebergs frozen into the pack ice that broke away (too small to show up on ice maps), that brought the bear further south than it would have ventured on its own.

It is a rare event for a polar bear to come ashore at Newfoundland in January, but it has happened before. Apparently, another bear came ashore, also on Fogo Island – in 1935 – and attacked someone. See the story below.
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Polar bear habitat at 26 January 2016

There is still below average ice extent in the Barents Sea but there is no data whatsoever to indicate that this situation poses a problem for polar bears, given that as far as researchers know, polar bears eat little or nothing during the winter. That’s why the bears are at their leanest at the end of winter and why seal pups born in early spring are such a critical food source.

Note on map below (from WUWT Sea Ice Page, marked; original here) that polar bears are not found in three areas that are included in the total Arctic ice extent figures: below-average or above-average ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, Baltic Sea, and Gulf of St. Lawrence have no impact on polar bear health and survival.

 

Polar bear habitat at 26 Jan 2016_no bears marked_PolarBearScience_sm

Additional ice maps below. Continue reading

Polar bear survival: habitat 2013 vs. 2016 for 22 January

Using sea ice maps issued by the National Sea Ice Data Center (NSIDC), it’s interesting to compare these two years with respect to polar bear health and survival (keeping in mind that no polar bears live in what I like to call the armpits of the Arctic – the Sea of Okhotsk, the Baltic Sea or in the Gulf of St. Lawrence)1:

22 January 2016

Sea ice extent 2016 Jan 22 NSIDC

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Human sees cute – polar bear sees dinner

Newborn harp seals are food for Davis Strait, East Greenland and Kara Sea polar bears but wildlife photographers see only cute furry babies with big eyes and trusting natures.

Harp sea newborn_wikipedia

See these photos taken some unknown spring (early March) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada (published 29 December 2015 by Mailonline): the pups are kind of skinny when first born but fatten up quickly on fat-rich milk from their attentive mothers. Ask yourself: does this photographer know that the fattest of these baby seals he oh’s and ah’s over in his commentary are just what polar bears depend on for their existence – and that the bears will eat as many of them as they can catch, peeling them like bananas so that they can eat the skin and fat first?

The title of the piece is: “Eye-eye! Cheeky seal cubs just a few days old wink and pose for the camera as they wait for their mother to feed them:

  • The young Harp seal pups had never seen humans before the pictures were taken
  • They were photographed in their habitat of Madeleine Island in Quebec, Canada
  • Harp seals are solitary animals except during breeding season, when they congregate in their thousands

“These seal-ebrities from Canada are pictured striking hilarious poses that even Cara Delevingne would be proud of.

The three Harp seal pups – just days old – were passing time while they waited for their mother to return from hunting.

One pup looked straight to the camera with a cheeky wink, while another lay on its back looking longingly at the lens.

The impressive poses were captured by photographer Gunther Riehle, who was lucky enough to get just feet away from the baby seals on Madeleine Island in Quebec.”

See the photos here. Harp seal and hooded seal distribution and breeding areas in the Eastern Arctic (from DFO Canada).

Harp and hooded seal pupping areas and distribution_Stenson 2014 fig 1

More polar bear seal prey info here. See potential consequences of lots of polar bears depending on abundant harp seals north of Newfoundland in my novel, EATEN.

The old ‘website revision’ excuse for not updating polar bear status changes

Apparently, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) thinks that it’s OK to mislead the public on the conservation status of polar bears for half a year because its website is being revamped. This conservation organization is of the opinion that people landing on their website while searching for official polar bear status information don’t need to know right away that a new IUCN Red List document was published in November 2015. We know this because the message below appeared on the PBSG homepage 14 January 2016 (text in bold was there previously: the new message is in CAPS), screencap of entire page at 16 Jan 2016 pdf here:

PBSG website notice_2016 Jan 14 update

It appears that the PBSG feels that the public can wait to be told about 2015 Red List decision until the PBSG are ready for them to be told, which could be anywhere from March to the end of June 2016, depending on what definition of “spring” they use. Anyone (like moi) suggesting this tactic is paramount to withholding unpleasant information is just being “impatient.”

Decide for yourself but to me, this PBSG message speaks volumes: it says the 2015 IUCN Red List assessment is bad news for polar bear predictions of gloom and doom. Polar bear specialists don’t want to talk about it because it is a slap-down of all previous attempts at predicting a grim future for the bears (see the summary at the end of this post).
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Genetic similarity of polar bears does not make them vulnerable to global warming

A new genetics paper suggests that global warming will “fragment” polar bear habitat to such an extent that it will further reduce the already-low genetic variability documented in the bears, with disastrous effects on survival.

Beaufort Sea male polar bear USGS_2005 Amstrup photo

However, that argument only works if you disregard a rather large body of literature on other mammals as well as the history of polar bears themselves. I’ve addressed this issue before (“Low genetic diversity will not make polar bears more vulnerable to extinction”) and what I said then needs to be repeated now:

“…there is lots of evidence to support my contention that polar bears are not more vulnerable to extinction just because they have low genetic diversity.

I continued:

Many populations that were reduced to very low numbers (i.e., gone through a ‘bottleneck’ ), ending up with low genetic variation, have subsequently recovered dramatically without adverse affects.

In other words, they not only recouped their population size after a population bottleneck but did so while dealing with subsequent environmental fluctuations and other natural threats to their survival (Lehman 1998:R723-724).

In some cases, genetic diversity increased after a population bottleneck, via mechanisms biologists are only just beginning to understand.

In fact, there is good evidence to suggest that ice age cooling is what previously fragmented polar bear populations: past warm interglacial periods brought bears closer together, confined more or less to the area within the Arctic Circle – even in winter.

Go back and read the entire genetic diversity post. I concluded it by recounting several examples of abundant and successful mammal populations with low genetic diversity (with references), including Northern elephant seals, Guadalupe fur seal, Sand Nicolas Island fox, Mouflon sheep, and North Atlantic right whale. The details are worth reviewing. If you can’t access a paper you want to read, contact me via the contact page above and I’ll send it along.

Regarding this new paper (Kutschera et al. 2016), what I said before needs repeating:

“To suggest that polar bears cannot endure a bit of Arctic warming in the future (whether natural or due to human influences on climate, or a bit of both) is absurd: climatic extremes have defined the evolutionary history of polar bears, which means that climatic extremes have fine-tuned their biological adaptability.”

In fact, the paleoclimate/genetics paper by Cronin and Cronin (2015) which I summarized a few days ago, documents those climatic extremes. See below for details on the polar bear genetic diversity paper.
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Nunavut survivor describes what a polar bear attack is like

From NunatsiaqOnline yesterday, a detailed description of a polar bear attack that took place along Hudson Strait, within the Davis Strait polar bear subpopulation.

Kimmirut Nunavut_Google maps

Kootoo Shaw was wearing nothing but long johns and a T-shirt when a 400-pound polar bear dragged him by his toes along the tundra towards the ocean outside Kimmirut in September 2003.

Shaw, 46, was working as a guide on a sport-hunting trip when the attack occurred in the early morning. Continue reading