A peek into polar bears’ lives reveals revved-up metabolisms

In a world with declining Arctic sea ice, that could be a problem

polar bear

BEARS ON ICE  A study that put camera collars on polar bears showed that the bears have higher springtime metabolic rates than previous estimates.

A. Pagano/USGS

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Female polar bears prowling springtime sea ice have extreme weight swings, some losing more than 10 percent of their body mass in just over a week. And the beginnings of bear video blogging help explain why.

An ambitious study of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in Alaska has found that their overall metabolic rate is 1.6 times greater than thought, says wildlife biologist Anthony Pagano of the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage. With bodies that burn energy fast, polar bears need to eat a blubbery adult ringed seal (or 19 newborn seals) every 10 to 12 days just to maintain weight, Pagano and his colleagues report in the Feb. 2 Science. Camera-collar vlogs, a bear’s-eye view of the carnivores’ diet and lifestyle secrets, show just how well individual bears are doing.

The study puts the firmest numbers yet on basic needs of polar bears, whose lives are tied to the annual spread and shrinkage of Arctic sea ice, Pagano says. As the climate has warmed, the annual ice minimum has grown skimpier by some 14 percent per decade (SN Online: 9/19/16), raising worries about polar bear populations. These bears hunt the fat-rich seals that feed and breed around ice, and as seal habitat shrinks, so do the bears’ prospects.

Pagano and colleagues used helicopters to search for polar bears on ice about off the Alaska coast in the Beaufort Sea. It’s “a lot of grueling hours looking out the window watching tracks and looking at whiteness,” he says.

After tracking down female bears without cubs, the researchers fitted the animals with a camera collar. A full day’s doings of bears on the sea ice have been mostly a matter of speculation, Pagano says. Collar videos showed that 90 percent of seal hunts are ambushes, often by a bear lurking near a hole in the ice until a seal bursts up for a gulp of air. Videos also caught early glimpses of the breeding season and what passes for courtship among polar bears. Males, Pagano says, “pretty much harass the female until she’ll submit.”

The researchers also injected each bear with a dose of water with extra neutrons in both the hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Eight to 11 days later, the team caught the same bear to check what was left of the altered atoms. Lower traces of the special form of oxygen indicated that the bear’s body chemistry had been very active, and that the bear had exhaled lots of carbon dioxide. (The unusual form of hydrogen let scientists correct results for oxygen atoms lost in H2O, for instance when the bear urinated.)  

Using CO₂ data from nine females, Pagano and his colleagues calculated the field metabolic rates for polar bears going about their springtime lives. The team found that female bears need to eat a bit more than 12,000 kilocalories (or what human dieters call calories) a day just to stay even. That estimate adds some 4,600 kilocalories a day to the old estimate. But merely maintaining weight isn’t enough for a polar lifestyle. To survive lean times, polar bears typically pack on extra weight in spring.

To get a broader view of the bears’ energy needs, similar metabolic measurements for other seasons would be useful, says physiological ecologist John Whiteman of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. That could help resolve whether and how much bear metabolism drops when there’s little food, a response that might protect bears during hard times. Using temperature loggers to estimate metabolic rates, he has seen only a gradual decline in metabolic rates in summer as food gets tougher to find. Winter metabolic rates remain a mystery.

Hunting success and bear activity are only part of the picture of polar bear health, says ecotoxicologist Sabrina Tartu, of the Norwegian Polar Institute, which is based in Tromsø. Tartu coauthored a 2017 paper showing that toxic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, can build up in bear fat. Such “pollutants could, by direct or indirect pathways, disrupt metabolic rates,” she says. So changing the climate is far from the only way humankind could affect polar bear energy and hunting dynamics.

POLAR BEAR VLOGS Wild female polar bears wore collars with a video camera and other instruments for a little over a week as the bears roamed sea ice off the coast of Alaska during spring.

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