A strange, distinct group of polar bears was found in Greenland
Researchers have identified a previously unknown population of solitary polar bears in southeastern Greenland. Bears hunt seals in fjords, and on freshwater ice caps, instead of going to the rapidly declining sea ice like other polar bear species.
A new report in the journal Science describes the population, bringing the total number of now known polar bear groups from 19 to 20. Scientists knew that some polar bears may have been in this area based on historical records and information from local communities in the Arctic, and were finally able to confirm that this is a distinct population. There are some bears in this group and females are smaller than the rest of the population.
“SE Greenland’s polar bears are the most genetically distinct polar bears on the planet. They are different from all the other 19 polar bear sub-populations in the Arctic and more distinct from the neighboring sub-populations than any other pair, “Christine Ledre, a polar scientist at the University of Washington and lead author of the study, said in an email to Arthur. “They’ve been apart for a few hundred years and have probably always been a small population.”
Scientists worked for many years to establish research posts in Greenland, to collar bears and to observe them to confirm their suitability and isolation. Laidre said the new group was tracked from 2015 to 2021.
Elizabeth Peacock, an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine and a polar bear expert, wrote a perspective article with Ledre’s research in the Science Journal. She explained that some online posts have suggested that this distinct bear group may be a “thriving” population as they find new ways to hunt. But Peacock doesn’t think so.
“Plasticity generally refers to a person who has the ability to behave differently, you know … So, ‘I can figure out how to kill a walrus or find out how to catch a fish,'” she said. “Natural selection means adapting to the situation over time… Assuming that there is enough time for polar bears to change what they are doing in response to natural selection.”
Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are occurring faster than the reproduction of many polar bears.
In her article, the peacock draws attention to other known polar bear populations that have shown signs of plasticity, such as building nests at a distance away from sea ice loss or hunting different types of predators when their usual seal diet is not plentiful. With ice on both poles melting, there are questions about whether it will be possible to hunt glaciers in the future. Breeds of polar bears are about 10 years old, but climate change is affecting ice even faster. Researchers are worried that this new behavior will not diminish, as the climate crisis is causing the ice in the Arctic to recede rapidly.
“We have no idea if they are thriving. We do not know whether the population is stable or in crisis. More research is needed, “Ledre said in an email. To determine how this population is doing in the face of climate change, scientists will have to study the existence of adult female polar bears by marking them and studying them for three or four years.
“Glacier ice may help some polar bears to survive longer in warmer climates and may be important for the species to survive (i.e. prevent extinction), but it is not available to the majority of polar bears,” she said. “Future observations of these bears may tell us a little more about the future of the species.”