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Summer declines in activity and body temperature offer polar bears limited energy savings

Science  17 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6245, pp. 295-298
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa8623

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Not that unusual after all

As polar ice recedes, polar bears are facing a changed habitat with reduced summer foraging opportunities. It has been hypothesized that they might be able to resist summer food shortages by reducing their metabolic needs in a sort of “walking hibernation.” Whiteman et al. monitored energy expenditure in polar bears both on and off the ice and found energy reductions, but that these were more akin to normal mammalian fasting levels. Thus, it appears that polar bears have no energetic protections against reduced summer food supplies and will face increasing starvation threats if summer foraging habitats continue to decline.

Science, this issue p. 295

Abstract

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) summer on the sea ice or, where it melts, on shore. Although the physiology of “ice” bears in summer is unknown, “shore” bears purportedly minimize energy losses by entering a hibernation-like state when deprived of food. Such a strategy could partially compensate for the loss of on-ice foraging opportunities caused by climate change. However, here we report gradual, moderate declines in activity and body temperature of both shore and ice bears in summer, resembling energy expenditures typical of fasting, nonhibernating mammals. Also, we found that to avoid unsustainable heat loss while swimming, bears employed unusual heterothermy of the body core. Thus, although well adapted to seasonal ice melt, polar bears appear susceptible to deleterious declines in body condition during the lengthening period of summer food deprivation.

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