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Hello - Welcome. The purpose of this site is to document my experiences photographing wildlife and nature throughout Australia and abroad.  I hope you find the content interesting and educational, and the images  cause you to reflect on how important it is preserve natural places and their inhabitants.

All wildife has been photographed in the wild and animals are NOT captive or living in enclosures.

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Conservation Matters.....

« Photographing Emotive Situations - Polar Bears | Main | Photographing Polar Bears in the Arctic in Canada for 3 weeks »
Monday
Nov302009

Polar Bear Infanticide & Cannibalism on the Arctic Ice - Global Warming

I've just returned from a few weeks in the Arctic observing polar bears (Ursus martimus).

During the time I was on ther tundra, I observed as  many as 12 bears at any one time which included large males, females, and females with cubs (1st and 2nd year).  I also sighted Arctic Fox, Arctic Hare, Silver and Cross Fox, and Rock Ptarmigans.

Photographs were taken in an assortment of conditions ranging from almost balmy conditions in full sun to downright frigid temperatures with 50 knot blizzard winds and falling snow.

Bear Congregation Waits for Ice to Form

From October to November there are many bears that have migrated from the more southerly regions to the shores of Hudson Bay; they are very hungry and have not fed for most of the summer.  The congregation is waiting for the sea ice to form to allow them to roam widely to feed upon their favourite prey - the ringed seal. 

Lack of Sea Ice

One of the most striking observations I made was the lack of solid sea ice.   Although the ice was slowly forming, it was still what they call grease ice, which is ice that is not suitable for the bears to traverse safely any great distance from the shoreline.  The sea ice is paramount to the bear's survival as without the ice formation the bears cannot move onto the bay to track and feed on seals. 

Cannibalism

On one day we observed a male polar bear feeding upon what appeared to be some type of carrion - perhaps a seal or a other small animal.  However, upon closer inspection it was revealed that the small carcass was not a seal but rather a baby first year polar bear.  The location of the feeding male was given away by two ravens which could be seen from some distance jumping and flying about.

Circling the male was a female bear which appeared to be in obvious distress. The female was not walking as polar bears usually do - steadily and surely, but instead had a stiff gait and was walking erratically.  Further, the bear's head was swaying from side to side and the mother was making low vocalisations.

Although cannibalism is not unheard of in the animal world, it isn't commonly observed amongst polar bears.  There are several hypothesis for cannibalism, however, all are unfounded.  Perhaps the male bear is removing future competition by killing the cub, or is killing the cub to cause the female mother to become 'available" again for mating.  Although these are plausible reasons, it's more likely that the male bear was exceptionally hungry  and seized the opportunity for nutritional gain by feeding upon the cub. As mentioned earlier the bears are congregating to feed on ringed seals on the ice.  If the ice is not forming earlier enough, then the hungry bears become starved and after reaching such a poor condition may seek alternate prey such as young bear cubs or other animals. 

Of interest is that the male bear did not consume the liver of the cub.  This is because the liver of a polar bear is toxic.  How did the male know the liver was toxic?

Mother Carries Deceased Away

After the male bear had finished consuming the carcass and moved away, the female bear approached the carcass, sniffed at it, and  picking it up gently within her jaws, she proceeded to carry it away – where to is unknown as I could not follow her.

Major Concern

What's a major concern is that this cannibalistic behaviour may become more prevalent if conditions favourable for ice formation are delayed, leading to fewer recruitment of a species that is already in decline. 

Scientists have documented the gradual reduction and delay in sea ice formation for several years and although some proponents believe this to be a normal event, others believe the cause maybe global warming.  Whatever the cause, the results speak for themselves - sea ice is not forming as rapidly or as extensively as it did.

Please note that this image is being posted NOT to discriminate or advance the perception that polar bears are fearless and uncaring predators, but to highlight a concern that global warming is altering the behaviour of specific species.

As I get time I will post a series of images I have photographed of the event.

For more information on the plight of the polar bear, please visit Polar Bears International

Images top to bottom: 

1: Male polar bear holds cub carcass looking toward circling mother bear.

2: Male polar bear trots across snow ridge carrying cub carcass to avoid contact with other bears in near vicinity.

3: Cub head, entrails and uneaten liver are dragged along the ice.

4: Carcass left on ice after male polar bear had consumed most of the carcass.

5: Male polar bear eating cub carcass.

6: Polar bear waits patiently for sea ice to form.  At this time of the year the ice should be more extensive.

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Reader Comments (6)

A grim reminder that Nature can be a cruel mistress. Hopefully the death of the cub will help the male survive the year so the sacrifice will not be in vain. Thanks for telling the story.

December 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Very interesting images and story! Different from the "teddy bear" image we usally see of polar bear!

December 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDominic Gendron

Thank you so much for your article and also for posting these photos. I have taken the liberty to ost your article with 2 photos in my blog, linking back to you. I hope it is OK. I found your article after I had already done a posting with JoAnne Simerson's report from her blog which I posted in connection to the Conference in Copenhagen.

It is just heart breaking and I hope this development can be stopped somehow although I am very sceptical.

Thanks again for this posting

Birgit

December 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBirgit Rudolph

Great pictures Iain. As sad as it is to see it is also good to see that this sort of thing does happen and there is no reason why it should not be displayed. After all, it is nature and I'm sure it has gone on for millions of years and will continue to do so for many more to come. Well done and thanks for publishing these photos. I'm sure some will complain but they are the ones that live that never venture outside and beleive only what they see on TV or in theme parks.

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Many thanks for your comments Birgit & Jack and absolutely no hassles linking to the site Birgit.

December 10, 2009 | Registered CommenterIain Williams

Wow, so i guess these are not the kind of bears you can give a hug to, huh. I think these bears weigh like more than my car

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

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