Polar bear seen eating dolphins for first time; climate change blamed, skeptics still shrug


Of course the internet caught fire: It’s two of mankind’s most-adored animals (click) in a horrifically graphic and savage image (click) promoting that ultimate threat/hoax known as climate change (click, click, click).

But like all the other “unprecedented” events recently, all the chatter is just adding up to more hot air – if only of the virtual type.

“Polar bears are eating dolphins and freezing the leftovers” is one of the headlines being used by hundreds of publications and websites after a team of researchers in Svalbard published their observations this month in the journal Polar Research.

The researchers stated several such incidents have been observed since April of 2014, when a bear was spotted with two dead white-beaked dolphins.

“We think the bear killed them (using) a similar technique as killing seals,”said Jon Aars, a polar bear expert with the Norwegian Polar Institute, in an interview with New Scientist.

The study indicates the dolphins were far more north than usual during spring due to the diminishing sea ice cover. But the sea mammals were subsequently blown off course by strong winds and trapped beneath the sea ice until they found a small hole and emerged for air, where they bear was waiting.

“The bear had consumed most parts of one dolphin,” the four researchers wrote in their study. “When observed he was in the process of covering the mostly intact second dolphin with snow. Such caching behavior is generally considered untypical of polar bears.”

At least seven additional dolphin carcasses were observed in or near the same area during the summer and fall, according to the study.

“We suggest, based on the area and the degree to which these dolphins had decayed, that they were likely from the same pod and also suffered death due to entrapment in the ice in April, the researchers wrote. “At least six different polar bears were seen scavenging on the carcasses.”

The long-term implication is dolphins may become a significant food source for bears as they struggle to adapt to the loss of their traditional feeding areas and prey.

“Entrapments of pods of white-beaked dolphins may provide a significant source of food for some bears locally over a longer period of time after such an incident,” the report notes. “An increase of white-beaked dolphins in areas where the sea ice shifts northward may, given the significant size of these animals, offer a new prey or carrion food source to bears in an environment where access to ringed seals and bearded seals may decline in future years.”

Polar bears – along with a multitude of other species – have been experiencing a variety of never-before-seen behaviors and hardships that are being attributed to climate change.

One study published earlier this year notes the bears are also increasingly feeding on sea birds along coasts because of the lack of sea ice, while another study that went virtual asserts pollutants are make their penis bones more fragile.

What the revelations aren’t doing, however is swaying people’s opinions any more than reports about climate change impacts that don’t include cute animals.

Many commenters on websites ranging from London tabloids to science magazines expressed sympathy for one or both species, with some noting the visible ribcage of bear in one photo is indicative of the trouble they’re having finding prey. Others, regardless of their belief in climate change, asserted the study shows polar bears aren’t as endangered as scientists frequently claim.

But beyond those relatively focused comments, the vast majority of responses stuck to predicable rants about evil polluters, evil scientists getting rich scaring people, and plenty of snark asking why folks are sympathizing with  “remorseless carnivores.”