Polar bears face the risk of starvation during periods of Arctic sea ice absence when they are compelled to search for food on land. Despite their ability to adapt their diet and hunting behaviors, these apex predators struggle to cope with longer ice-free seasons due to climate change. The findings, based on data collected from 20 polar bears and published in Nature Communications, shed new light on the challenges these magnificent creatures face.

The Arctic is experiencing rapid sea ice reduction due to ongoing climate change. From late spring to early summer, polar bears rely on sea ice as a hunting platform, primarily targeting seals during the birthing and weaning of cubs. However, during ice-free periods, polar bears minimize activity to conserve energy, resorting to fasting or consuming low-energy vegetation on land. While some individuals have been observed feeding on terrestrial animals, the effectiveness of this strategy remains limited.

Contrary to speculation that polar bears might adapt to longer ice-free seasons by mimicking their grizzly relatives, the study’s findings suggest otherwise. Charles Robbins, director of the Washington State University Bear Center and co-author of the study, emphasized that polar bears cannot simply “don a white coat” and behave like grizzlies. They are fundamentally different creatures with unique dietary and behavioral needs.

Adult male polar bears, larger than grizzlies, rely on the energy-rich fat of seals to maintain their massive size. Researchers conducted their study in the western Hudson Bay, Canada, one of the regions most affected by climate change, where the ice-free period has increased by about three weeks since 1979. Tracking 20 polar bears equipped with collars containing cameras and GPS, the researchers observed their behaviors during the prolonged ice-free period from August to September.

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