Polar bears are swimming for several hours over long distances without any rest or stopping for food.
As Arctic ice continues to melt away at an unprecedented rate, its impact on the environment is getting more and more visible. New research has found that melting ice is negatively affecting polar bears too and is forcing them to swim for longer periods of time without any rest or break.
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Polar bears have front paws that propel them through the ocean and allow them to dive into the water for hunting prey and navigating ice floes.
To study the impact of melting ice on polar bears’ swimming behavior, researchers from University of Alberta and Environment and Climate Change Canada affixed GPS transmitters with more than 100 polar bears of Beaufort Sea and Hudson Bay and tracked their long distance swimming in seasonal migrations during 2007 to 2012.
In 2012, when the Arctic sea hit a record low, 69% of bears swam more than 31 miles at least once. The number is significantly higher, up from 25% in 2004 when only a quarter of bears performed long-distance swims (around 31 miles or 50 kilometers). One bear in 2009 travelled over 250 miles (400 kilometers) for 9 straight days without stopping for food or rest. That was the single longest swim by a polar bear during the study period. The research points to the fact that melting ice in Arctic is taking a toll on polar bears population in the region. Polar bears are good swimmers but they are not designed to swim for several hours continuously over long distances.
“Recent studies indicate that swimming may be energetically costly to polar bears,” said Nicolas Pilfold lead author of the study. “Given the continued trend of sea ice loss, we recognize that an increased frequency in the need to engage in this behavior may have serious implications for population of polar bears living around the Arctic Basin.”
The swimming behavior in polar bears varied from one polar bear to another and it was dependent upon age, sex and body size of the animal. Researchers found that female bears swam less to prevent their cubs from sinking into the deep water while subadults were observed swimming as frequently as lone adults.
“The pattern of long-distance swimming by polar bears in the Beaufort Sea shows the finger print of climate change,” said Pilfold. “Swims are occurring more often, in association with sea ice melting faster and moving farther from shore in the summer.”
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The study was published in Ecography.