Some polar bears do not need sea ice

new YorkScientists have discovered a previously unknown polar bear population in southeastern Greenland that does not depend on sea ice.

Instead, this isolated population hunts on freshwater ice near glaciers that flow into the sea, researchers led by Kristin Laidre of the University of Washington write in the journal Science. The population is also genetically different from others.

The researchers estimate that there are a few hundred of them, making them the 20th known subgroup of polar bears. The scientists used a large amount of data, including on polar bear movements and genetics, from the past 36 years to research the population and observed the animals in their environment.

Most polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting

“We knew from historical records and Aboriginal knowledge that there are some bears in this area. However, we didn’t realize how extraordinary they are,” said Laidre. The region is little explored due to unpredictable weather conditions, rugged mountains and heavy snowfalls.

Previously known populations of polar bears largely rely on sea ice to hunt seals. However, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic has continued to decrease in recent decades due to climate change. The discovery of the new population could give hope, the researchers write. The freshwater ice at the glaciers that flow into the sea could potentially serve as a “previously unknown climate refuge.”

Glacier habitat will probably not harbor large numbers of polar bears

However, they warn against too much hope. The study shows how some polar bears might survive climate change, Laidre said. “But I don’t think the glacier habitat will be home to large numbers of polar bears. There just isn’t enough of it. We continue to expect polar bear numbers in the Arctic to decline sharply with climate change.”

The researchers write that the population that has now been discovered also uses sea ice that freezes directly on the coast for hunting. However, this is only available in the area four months a year, until the end of May.

It is the most genetically isolated polar bear population on earth, said co-author Beth Shapiro of the University of California. “We know that this population has been separate from other polar bear populations for at least several hundred years.”

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