A team of scientists has discovered a unique group of polar bears with distinct behavior in southeast Greenland. The group has remained isolated for hundreds of years and is genetically different from other polar bears, researchers say. Polar bears in the Arctic region depend on sea ice as a platform to hunt seals. But, with rising temperatures due to climate change, this ice is melting, reducing the hunting ground for bears.
However, in a new study published in the journal Science, researchers have found a distinct group of polar bears that do not rely on sea ice. Instead, this subpopulation of polar bears appears to have adapted to climate change, hunting seals in fjords and relying on ice mixes.
Scientists from the University of Washington, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and others have tracked polar bears in the southeast region for seven years. They combined the new data with genetic analysis and also included decades of historical data from across the east coast of Greenland. Scientists also monitored fjords and the offshore sea ice environment using the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites and data from the NSIDC.
Scientists have observed that polar bears in southeast Greenland do not have access to sea ice for two-thirds of the year. These bears, however, continue to hunt and survive using patches of freshwater ice that continually break away from coastal glaciers and Greenland’s ice caps.
Moreover, these polar bears also move between the fjords in search of food by traversing the mountains and crossing the interior ice.
“We knew there were bears in the area from historical records and Indigenous knowledge,” said University of Washington polar scientist Kristin Laidre, study co-author. According to the researchers, this group of polar bears has been isolated from their Arctic counterparts for hundreds of years. As the temperatures rose and the ice melted, the species adopted strategies and managed to survive.