Researchers observe polar bear eating dolphin, says climate change affecting interaction of different species

(REUTERS/Iain D. Williams)Climate change has turned some polar bears into cannibals as global warming melts their Arctic ice hunting grounds, reducing the polar bear population, according to a U.S.-led global scientific study on the impacts of climate change.

It has been said that adaptation is the key to survival and that is exactly what polar bears in the Arctic are doing.

On April 23, 2014, scientists conducting research in the Norwegian Arctic observed an adult male polar bear preying on a white-beaked dolphin.

Two things in particular caught their attention. First, the dolphin is not the polar bear's usual prey and second, it is rare that this particular species of dolphin would travel so far north in early spring as they usually arrive in the area when it is warmer.

In the report they wrote for the "Polar Research" journal, research scientists Jon Aars, Magnus Andersen, Samuel Blanc and Agnes Breniere described seeing a single polar bear eating the carcass of a white-beaked dolphin. The bear was described as very skinny and about 16-20 years old. The scientists also saw the bear covering what remained of the dolphin with snow, probably to prevent other animals (foxes, gulls) from scavenging it. This behavior, called caching, is uncommon for polar bears.

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The researchers came to the conclusion that the dolphin probably got trapped in the small fjord in Svalbard. The species have been seen in the area before but not during spring or winter. The dolphins probably took advantage of the lack of sea ice earlier and became trapped when strong northerly winds pushed in the ice.

This is the first record of a dolphin being a polar bear prey as the animal prefers ringed and bearded seals. But Jon Aars, one of the researchers, clarified that polar bears do eat what's available.

"They are very opportunistic…given that the dolphins are there it's no surprise at all that the bear would actually take it," the scientist explained.

However, their study indicated that climate change was affecting how different species interact in the Arctic as warm weather and warm waters are causing new species to venture further north.

Right now, the authors of the study do not think that dolphins would become a major food source of polar bears, although it can provide another alternative source of protein.

However, that might change in 20 to 30 years when changes in animal distribution and interactions become more pronounced.  

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