Genetically isolated group: polar bear species can survive without sea ice

Polar bears hunt seals from the sea ice.

Genetically isolated group: polar bear species can survive without sea ice

Polar bears hunt seals from the sea ice. But the climate crisis is melting this more and more. The species is in great danger. However, researchers are finding an isolated and previously unknown subspecies of bear that does not rely on sea ice.

Scientists have discovered a previously unknown polar bear population in southeastern Greenland that does not depend on sea ice. Instead, this isolated population hunts on freshwater ice near glaciers that flow into the sea, researchers led by Kristin Laidre from the University of Washington write in the journal Science. The population is also genetically different from others.

The researchers estimate that there are a few hundred of them, making them the 20th known subgroup of polar bears. The scientists used a lot of data, including on polar bear movements and genetics, from the past 36 years to be able to research the population and observed the animals in their environment.

"We knew from historical records and Aboriginal knowledge that there were some bears in this area, but we didn't realize how extraordinary they are," said Laidre. The region is little explored due to unpredictable weather conditions, rugged mountains and heavy snowfalls.

Previously known populations of polar bears largely rely on sea ice to hunt seals. However, the area of ​​sea ice in the Arctic has continued to shrink in recent decades due to climate change. The discovery of the new population could give hope, the researchers write. The freshwater ice at the glaciers that flow into the sea could potentially serve as a "previously unknown climate refuge."

However, they warn against too much hope. The study shows how some polar bears might survive climate change, Laidre said. "But I don't think the glacier habitat will host large numbers of polar bears. There just aren't enough of them. We continue to expect polar bear numbers in the Arctic to decline sharply with climate change."

The researchers write that the population that has now been discovered also uses sea ice that freezes directly on the coast for hunting. However, this is only available in the area four months a year, until the end of May.

It is the most genetically isolated polar bear population on earth, said co-author Beth Shapiro of the University of California. "We know that this population has been separate from other polar bear populations for at least several hundred years."

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