Tag Archives: hungry

Polar bear attacks are extremely rare says new study — but the data are incomplete

I did considerable research on polar bear attacks for my thriller of a novel EATEN — which many readers are finding a welcome change from the numbers-and-statistics approach of science — and I have to say that a recently published scientific summary of this phenomenon (1880-2014) authored by biologist James Wilder and colleagues left me speechless (Wilder et al. 2017).

Isbjørn

with permission, see EATEN cover.

By attempting to generate information that could be assessed with statistical methods, the authors ended up with data that is so skewed and incomplete that it fails to provide a plausible assessment of the risk to humans of attacks by polar bears. In my opinion, acknowledging that well-reported attacks on Europeans (or recorded by them) make up the bulk of the data used in the paper does not adequately address the weakness of the authors’ conclusions that attacks by polar bears are “extremely rare.”

The paper also focuses much attention on the potential for increases in polar bear attacks on humans due to sea ice loss (blamed on global warming) but ignores totally the increased risk stemming from the larger proportion of adult males that now exist in protected populations. Adult males frequently steal the kills of younger bears and in recovering (i.e. growing) populations, relatively more adult males potentially generate more young males that are nutritionally stressed and at risk of attacking humans (see discussion below).

Finally, no supplementary data is provided to show which records of attacks were included in the study, and no information is provided about how to access the database. How is that possible in this day and age?

Much is made in the paper of the negative effect of polar bear attacks on conservation objectives and the perceived increase in attacks associated with recent sea ice loss. These points were picked up by activist organization Polar Bears International (“Save Our Sea Ice!“) in a press release issued yesterday (11 July, pdf here). This has already generated the desired media attention (here and here, likely more to follow, like this) which is predictably focused on predictions of more polar bear attacks on humans due to global warming.

I have a feeling Inuit and other native inhabitants of the Arctic will not be impressed.

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Polar bears onshore in winter – will more bears mean more deadly attacks?

Incidents of polar bears causing problems onshore this winter (January & February) – including one that killed a horse in Greenland and another that threatened a resident in western Hudson Bay (only weeks after several incidents in southern Labrador) may be the tip of a very scary iceberg. I’ve taken a look at what records exist of this phenomenon, which in the past often involved deadly attacks. The large number of reports this winter appears to be a real increase, which is a rather terrifying prospect indeed.

Doug Clark photo polar bears onshore in Feb 2013 Wapusk NP

In winter, all polar bears except females in dens nursing newborn cubs are presumed by biologists to be on the sea ice hunting but it turns out that is not quite true. Although relatively rare over the last twenty years or so, it appears that in some areas, bears are now coming ashore in winter.

The photo above shows a polar bear photographed by a remote camera installed at Broad River Camp, Wapusk National Park, western Hudson Bay on 7 February 2013. It was visible to the camera for 40 minutes but apparently caused no trouble (camera installed and maintained by associate professor Doug Clark from the University of Saskatchewan and colleagues).

Given the fact that there are now many more polar bears than there were in the 1970s as well as more people living in many coastal Arctic communities, problems with bears in winter are likely to increase, as this winter’s events show. More bears out on the ice in winter (January-March) will almost certainly create more competition for the little bit of food that’s available (seals are hard to catch in winter), which means some bears might increasingly be looking for alternate sources of food onshore.

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Polar bears are not hungriest in summer when scientists are busy in the Arctic

Polar bears are leanest – and therefore, hungriest – at the end of March, not in the summer, as chemist Crispin Halsall stated in a recent article about working in the Arctic.

Polar bear feeding budget_PolarBearScience_6Sept2015

Recent September 1st stories by CNN and the BBC, based on a press release by WWF Russia on 27 August 2015, that five bears in the southern Kara Sea were hanging around a weather station and frightening workers there, apparently prompted chemist Crispen Halsall to make a nonsensical statement about polar bears being at their “hungriest” in summer (first here, reproduced here and picked up yesterday (September 5) by The Guardian here).

“In the path of the polar bears: what it’s like to be an Arctic scientist” (4 September 2015; Crispin Halsall, Reader in Environmental Chemistry at Lancaster University) had this to say:

“The case of Russian scientists trapped in their remote Arctic base by a group of inquisitive yet hungry polar bears does not come as a surprise. By late summer, Arctic sea ice is at a minimum and polar bears are effectively landlocked in coastal areas eagerly awaiting the return of ice during the autumn freeze and the chance to hunt seals again.

The Arctic summer is also the time of year when scientific activities are at their maximum, with bases operating at capacity and fieldwork operations at full flow, particularly in tundra and coastal regions. Polar bears are hungriest when scientists are busiest – “encounters” are inevitable. [my bold]

Polar bears are leanest – and therefore, the hungriest – at the end of winter (when it is more likely to kill with the intent to consume human prey) as stated clearly by Stirling and Øritsland (1995:2603):

Polar bears reach their lightest weights for the year in late March, just prior to the birth of the next cohort of ringed seal pups, which also suggests that it is the success of their hunting in spring and early summer that gives them the body reserves they need to survive through the rest of the year.” [my bold]

A polar bear that has not fed properly in spring – because it was young and inexperienced, too old or too young to defend its kills from bigger, stronger bears, or simply sick or injured – it might be unusually hungry in summer but it’s not the norm.  Polar bears eat nothing or very little over the summer (whether on land or on the ice) because they live off their stored fat – the physiological condition known as ‘fasting.’

The photos and video in the September 1, 2015 BBC story of the Russian bears shows this: the bears are fat, not skinny (“Video caption: Five bears settled near the weather station on the north Russian island of Vaygach, as Frankie McCamley reports”):

Beseiged by bears Russia BBC video Sept 1 2015

Polar bears might approach humans working in the Arctic during the summer because they are curious and/or bored, and they might attack and even eat humans because they have a drive to eat whenever the opportunity arises. But it’s not because they are “hungriest” in the summer.

References
Stirling, I. and Øritsland, N. A. 1995. Relationships between estimates of ringed seal (Phoca hispida) and polar bear (Ursus maritimus) populations in the Canadian Arctic. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 52: 2594 – 2612. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/f95-849#.VNep0y5v_gU