Less ice means longer swims more lethal to polar bear cubs

LOST CUBS: As sea ice diminishes, study suggests that some are paying the price for longer forays for food.

July 20, 2011 

Polar bears that must swim longer distances between rest stops because of diminished sea ice off Alaska's coast may be paying a price in lost cubs or precious calories, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The study reviewed data from female polar bears in the Chukchi and southern Beaufort seas that wore GPS collars and took swims of at least 30 miles between 2004 and 2009.

Eleven were mothers with cubs. In six cases, dependent cubs survived the swim, based on later observations. But in five cases, cubs could not be located after the long-distance swim.

USGS research zoologist George Durner said Tuesday that researchers cannot say for sure that the missing cubs drowned, but the evidence suggests long-distance swimming may be risky.

"For me, it raises my eyebrows to see the differences in mortality rates in cubs," he said.

Cub survival rate was higher for bears that were not recorded taking long-distance swims. Of seven in the study, only two lost cubs, Durner said.

Despite the limited data, Durner said, mortalities connected to long-distance swimming were important, "something else that may help to explain how changing sea ice conditions may be affecting polar bear populations."

Diminished sea ice habitat was the reason cited by former Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in 2008 for listing polar bears as a threatened species. The state challenged the listing in court but lost.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, the low summer area for sea ice, measured each September, averaged 2.7 million square miles from 1979 to 2000. Sea ice in recent years has fallen far below that, including a record low 1.65 million square miles in summer 2007.

Pack ice used to remain relatively close to Alaska's shore. However in recent years, it has receded far off the relatively shallow continental shelf, the resource-rich habitat of ringed seals, the main prey of polar bears.

Polar bears use sea ice for hunting. Their most important feeding time is mid-spring to early summer, when ringed seal pups are born and weaned in snow lairs on sea ice.

Not all polar bears attempt long-distance swims. Some bears ride ice pack beyond the shallow, near-shore water as temperatures rise. Some bears spend summers on land. But some on pack ice, land or remnant ice, for reasons unknown, take a notion to begin swimming, and have been recorded paddling 100 miles or more.

One female bear tracked by her GPS collar two years ago left a Beaufort Sea beach near Barrow and swam 426 miles over nine days without a break to pack ice. She walked or swam another 1,118 miles, eventually looping south back to Alaska soil a few miles from the Canada border. When Durner and other researchers recaptured her after two months, her body mass was reduced 22 percent to 389 pounds and her internal temperature had dropped. Her yearling cub had disappeared.

Her collar was one of 68 deployed on female bears between 2004 and 2009 in combination with satellite imagery of sea ice to identify female bears swimming long distances. Collars are not placed on male bears because they slide off their big necks.

Durner said researchers are seeing the bears pay a potential cost in energy for the marathon swims.

USGS researcher Anthony Pagano presented the findings of the unpublished study on Tuesday to the International Bear Association Conference in Ottawa, Canada.

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