One starving bear is not evidence of climate change, despite gruesome photos

We finally have this year’s example of the new fad of claiming every polar bear that died of starvation (or on its way to starving to death) — and caught on film — is a victim of climate change: a young bear on Somerset Island near Baffin Island, Nunavut filmed in August during its last agonizing hours by members of an activist conservation organization called SeaLegacy.

‘I filmed with tears rolling down my cheeks’: Heart-breaking footage shows a starving polar bear on its deathbed struggling to walk on iceless land.” [actual title of article in the DailyMail Online, 8 December 2017]. CBC Radio (8 December 2017) jumped on it as well, as have others. National Geographic ran a similar story, like others, that compliantly emphasized the future man-made global warming threat the photographers were touting.

Baffin Island starving pb headline_GlobalNews_8 Dec 2017

This is no different from Ian Stirling’s “bear that died of climate change” back in 2013, or several others since then: here, here, and here (one of these incidents also involved the same photographer as this incident, Paul Nicklen). I’ve called this practice of filming dead or dying bears and splashing the photos across the pages of newspapers and the internet “tragedy porn” — a kind of voyeurism that leaves people open to emotional manipulation. The internet laps it up.

UPDATE 9 December 2017: a quote from another source shows photographer Paul Nicklen’s “expertise” in polar bear biology, see below.

UPDATE 11 December 2017: an Arctic seal specialist, Jeff Higdon, has weighed in via twitter about the possible cause of death of this bear and also what the SeaLegacy team should have done when they found the bear in this condition. See below

UPDATE 12 December 2017: See my update to this post here.

Here is the co-founder of SeaLegacy (CBC Radio) saying why they filmed the incident and released the video (my bold):

“Conservation group SeaLegacy has released video of an emaciated polar bear near the Baffin Islands. They say climate change has led the animal to starvation. (SeaLegacy/Caters News)

“We hear from scientists that in the next 100 to 150 years, we’re going to lose polar bears,” Mittermeier [SeaLegacy co-founder Cristina Mittermeier ] said.

“We wanted the world to see what starvation of a majestic animal like this looks like.”

This may be how you get gullible people to donate money to a cause but it isn’t science: there is no evidence that this starving bear was a “victim” of sea ice loss caused by global warming.

SeaLegacy co-founder Cristina Mittermeier admitted as much later in the interview quoted above and said the reason the bear died was “irrelevent” — essentially admitting that she was using this poor individual as a serendipitous photo op to illustrate the future fate she imagines for all bears.

“It is impossible to tell why he was in this state. Maybe it could’ve been because of an injury or disease,” Mittermeier said.

While Mittermeier said the bear had no obvious injuries and she believes it was too young to die of old age, she contends that’s irrelevant.

“The point is that it was starving, and … as we lose sea ice in the Arctic, polar bears will starve.”

In August, this bear would have been only recently off the sea ice: since most bears are at their fattest at this time of year, something unusual had to have affected his ability to hunt or feed on the kills he made when other bears around him did not starve and die. It could have been something as simple as being out-competed for food in the spring by older animals.

But if sea ice loss due to man-made global warming had been the culprit, this bear would not have been the only one starving: the landscape would have been littered with carcasses. This was one bear dying a gruesome death as happens in the wild all the time (there is no suggestion that a necropsy was done to determine cause of death, just like Stirling’s bear that supposedly died of climate change.)

In fact, research done by polar bear specialsts that work in the field shows that the most common natural cause of death for polar bears is starvation, resulting from one cause or another (too young, too old, injured, sick) (Amstrup 2003):

Starvation of independent young as well as very old animals must account for much of the natural mortality among polar bears… Also, age structure data show that subadults aged 2-5years survive at lower rates than adults (Amstrup 1995), probably because they are still learning hunting and survival skills.”

I once observed a 3-year-old subadult that weighed only 70 kg in November. This was near the end of the autumn period in which Beaufort Sea bears reach their peak weights (Durner and Amstrup 1996), and his cohorts at that time weighed in excess of 200 kg. This young animal apparently had not learned the skills needed to survive and was starving to death.” [my bold]

But as Mittermeier has made clear, facts don’t matter in cases like this Somerset Island bear’s death: it’s all about the message.

I’ve asked this question before because it speaks to the present political climate: where were the appeals to help the many starving polar bears back in the spring of 1974 when females with newborn cubs were starving in the Eastern Beaufort Sea because the thick spring ice drove ringed seals away before they gave birth (Stirling 2002)?

Here is what Stirling and Lunn (1997:177) had to say about the mortality event of 1974 that they witnessed:

“…in the spring of 1974, when ringed seal pups first became scarce, we capture two very thin lone adult female polar bears that had nursed recently, from which we deduced they had already lost their litters. A third emaciated female was accompanied by two cubs which were so thin that one could barely walk. We have not seen females with cubs in this condition in the Beaufort Sea, or elsewhere in the Arctic, before or since.”

What Stirling and Lunn witnessed and documented is scientific evidence that natural variation in spring sea ice can have devastating effects on polar bears, including mass mortality events (Crockford 2017). However, we have not seen any similar mass starvation events that have been conclusively shown to be caused by low summer sea ice.

One starving bear is not scientific evidence that man-made global warming has already negatively affected polar bears but it is evidence that some activists will use any ploy to advance their agenda and increase donations.

UPDATE: In an interview yesterday published in the Victoria Times-Colonist (my home town) with photographer Nicklen stated (my bold):

“Nicklen is careful about drawing conclusions from his pictures, noting that many people look to poke holes in what’s being said about things like the disappearance of sea ice from the North.

“Ice is melting earlier every spring and freezing later every fall,” Nicklen said.

“Bears are designed to go as much as two months without ice, but they are not designed to go four or five months without ice.

“Well, this [the video] is what it actually looks like when polar bears are stranded on land.”

Nicklen should do a bit more reading: polar bears in Western Hudson Bay routinely go four to five months without ice. Four months was normal in the good old days (ca. 1980) and almost five months in some recent years (Castro de la Guardia et al. 2017; Cherry et al. 2013; Ramsay and Stirling 1988; Stirling and Lunn 1997). WHB pregnant females spend 8 months or more on land with no ill effects that can conclusively be blamed on a slightly longer time without ice (Crockford 2017). Southern Hudson Bay polar bears spend a similar amount of time without ice (Obbard et al. 2016), see this post (with references).

UPDATE 11 December 2017: Communicationg via twitter (rather than a media interview) fully four days after the video was first made public (h/t Ryan Maue) Arctic seal specialist Jeff Higdon has weighed in via twitter about the possible cause of death of this bear, and about what the SeaLegacy team should have done when they found the bear in this condition.

This is what I would have expected from one of the Polar Bear Specialist Group members (Stirling, Amstrup, Laidre, etc) in the early days of the media frenzy over this video.

Jeff Highdon tweets:

[“I try to avoid commenting on stuff like this, at least for the first couple days when emotions are high. But since you asked…” 12:30 PM – 9 Dec 2017]

[“Now, for what I think (“think” being the operative word, because I def don’t know with any certainty) is going on with this particular PB – it has an aggressive form of cancer.”
12:37 PM – 9 Dec 2017]

[“Osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, has been recorded in PB (griz too). Source is “Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human”, a 2012 book by Dr. B.N. Horowitz and K. Bowers (you can see this section via a Google Books preview if interested).” 12:38 PM – 9 Dec 2017]

The next one is most important:

[“What the Sea Legacy crew should have done was contact the GN Conservation Officer in the nearest community and had this bear put down. And necropsied. The narrative of the story might have turned out quite different if they had.” 12:43 PM – 9 Dec 2017]

References

Amstrup, S.C. 2003. Polar bear (Ursus maritimus). In Wild Mammals of North America, G.A. Feldhamer, B.C. Thompson and J.A. Chapman (eds), pg. 587-610. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Castro de la Guardia, L., Myers, P.G., Derocher, A.E., Lunn, N.J., Terwisscha van Scheltinga, A.D. 2017. Sea ice cycle in western Hudson Bay, Canada, from a polar bear perspective. Marine Ecology Progress Series 564: 225–233. http://www.int-res.com/abstracts/meps/v564/p225-233/

Cherry, S.G., Derocher, A.E., Thiemann, G.W., Lunn, N.J. 2013. Migration phenology and seasonal fidelity of an Arctic marine predator in relation to sea ice dynamics. Journal of Animal Ecology 82:912-921. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2656.12050/abstract

Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 2 March 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3 Open access. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3

Obbard, M.E., Cattet, M.R.I., Howe, E.J., Middel, K.R., Newton, E.J., Kolenosky, G.B., Abraham, K.F. and Greenwood, C.J. 2016. Trends in body condition in polar bears (Ursus maritimus) from the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation in relation to changes in sea ice. Arctic Science, in press. 10.1139/AS-2015-0027

Ramsay, M.A. and Stirling, I. 1988. Reproductive biology and ecology of female polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Journal of Zoology London 214:601-624.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1988.tb03762.x/abstract

Stirling, I. 2002. Polar bears and seals in the eastern Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf: a synthesis of population trends and ecological relationships over three decades. Arctic 55 (Suppl. 1):59-76. http://arctic.synergiesprairies.ca/arctic/index.php/arctic/issue/view/42

Stirling, I. and Lunn, N.J. 1997. Environmental fluctuations in arctic marine ecosystems as reflected by variability in reproduction of polar bears and ringed seals. In Ecology of Arctic Environments, Woodin, S.J. and Marquiss, M. (eds), pg. 167-181. Blackwell Science, UK.

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