With the polar bear species in a fight for survival because of disappearing Arctic sea ice, a new distinct group of Greenland bears seem to have stumbled on an icy oasis that might allow a small remote population to “hang on.” But it’s far from the “life raft” for the endangered species that has long been a symbol of climate change, scientists said. A team of scientists tracked a group of a few hundred polar bears in Southeast Greenland that they show are genetically distinct and geographically separate from others, something not considered before, the AP reports. What’s really distinct is that these bears survive despite only having 100 days a year when there’s sea ice to hunt seals from. Elsewhere in the world, polar bears need at least 180 days of sea ice. When there’s no sea ice, bears often don’t eat for months.
With limited sea ice, which is frozen ocean water, these Southeast Greenland polar bears use freshwater icebergs spawned from the shrinking Greenland ice sheet as makeshift hunting grounds, according to a study in Thursday’s journal Science. However, scientists aren’t sure if they are thriving because they are smaller and have fewer cubs than other polar bear populations. “These polar bears are adapted to living in an environment that looks like the future,” said study lead author Kristin Laidre, a polar bear biologist at the University of Washington. Laidre tracked, collared, and tested the all-white bears over nine years, usually from a helicopter hovering the white snow and ice backdrop. “But most bears in the Arctic don’t have glacial ice,” adding that it can’t be deduced that there’s a now life raft for them throughout the Arctic. “Greenland is unique.”
This population of polar bears is on the southeast tip of the giant island, where there are no towns. While most bears travel 25 miles over four days, the Southeast Greenland bears go about 6 miles in the same time, the study said. “They just stay in the same place for years and years,” Laidre said. In general these bears are thinner than other Arctic bears and have fewer cubs, which could be because they are so isolated and don’t have as many mating opportunities, she said. Because this group hadn’t been studied before, Laidre said it is impossible to tell if the Southeast Greenland polar bear population has just adapted to be smaller and have fewer cubs or whether these are indicators of a stressed population and not a good sign for survival. “They’re not as healthy as other individuals who are in a better habitat,” said study co-author Beth Shapiro. “So it’s kind of an oasis maybe, but it’s not a happy oasis. It’s a I’m-struggling-to-get-by-but-just-making-it kind of oasis.”
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