Warming temperatures are quickly eroding the polar bear’s frozen habitat, but a new study says the predators could adapt by switching their diet from surf to turf.
Polar bears prey mainly upon seals during winter months, but as sea ice has retreated, they have increasingly struggled to reach the hunting ground where they capture their favorite meal. But researchers say the world’s largest land predator may be able to survive the loss of ice by moving its hunts further inland and changing up its meal plan.
A new study, conducted by ecologists Linda Gormezano and Robert Rockwell, looked at polar bears living in Canada’s western Hudson Bay to predict how the animals would adjust to a transforming habitat.
Scientists believe that as soon as 2068, ice in the area may have receded enough to leave polar bear cut off from their hunting grounds for as much as half the year. That would lead to an estimated 20 to 48 percent of adult male polar bears starving to death, while the rest will turn other food sources, including caribou, snow geese, and berries, all which are plentiful in the Hudson Bay.
According to Gormezano and Rockwell, polar bears would be able to obtain enough calories from their new diet to survive the summer months.
As it turns out, polar bears have already developed a taste for what could one day be their main diet. While polar bear still rely on seals for their main diet, they have also been observed foraging for berries and eating snow geese and their eggs, and bears in Manitoba have been recorded taking down caribou.
“If polar bears can transition their foraging behavior to effectively exploit these resources,” Gormezano and Rockwell state in their paper, “predictions for starvation-related mortality may be overestimated for western Hudson Bay.”
While conservationists are still cautious about the future of the polar bear, the new study renews some hope that despite a rapidly changing climate, the bear that once was seen as the most prominent victim of global warming may actually find a way to survive it.