A polar bear was filmed hunting and devouring a reindeer, a spectacle that had never before been completely captured on camera. But make no mistake, the change in diet is probably a sign of climate change driving the endangered species inward and not polar bears expanding their horizons and experimenting with new foods.
Polar Biology just published a description of the hunt by researchers. The sighting happened on August 21 at the Polish Polar Station in Hornsund, which is a part of the northern Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.
Scientists discovered the female polar bear close to the research facility. The bear was observed lifting its head and intensely sniffing the air before drifting over to five to seven reindeer who were grazing closer to the coast after it “disregarded some very boisterous individuals.” The male reindeer sprinted into the adjacent waters in an effort to avoid the polar bear’s attack as it steadily crept up on the herd. Nevertheless, the polar bear pursued and finally pounced on its prey about 25 meters (80 feet) offshore.
The pair ultimately arrived at the waterline where the bear started to tear open the reindeer and eat the flesh after a protracted fight in the water during which the reindeer was repeatedly submerged.
The majority of the flesh was consumed during a two-hour period by the bear, who also chased seabirds and envious Arctic foxes away. After the meal, the polar bear napped nearby for a full 12 hours before returning to the carcass for some leftovers.
Although there has previously been some evidence of polar bears killing reindeer in Svalbard, this is the first instance in which the entire incident has been seen on camera.
In their study report, the researchers note that “pre-2000 sources indicate that polar bears do not attack Svalbard reindeer.” This report serves as the first comprehensive account of a polar bear hunt for adult reindeer in Hornsund.
The decrease in local ice cover, according to the researchers, may be the reason why polar bears are choosing this prey more frequently. When it comes to climate change, the Arctic is one of the most severely affected regions of the planet. With less sea ice present, polar bears are forced inland and cut off from their usual prey of seals as a result of rising air and sea temperatures in the Arctic.
Additionally, the reindeer on Svalbard are easy prey. The researchers write that “the level of awareness observed among Svalbard reindeer is very low,” which seems to imply that reindeer in this area are simply unprepared for a polar bear attack. They seem to underestimate the danger of a bear assault while choosing eating and resting areas.
It’s unknown how the wider ecosystem would be impacted by this switch to land-based prey. Fortunately, as the arctic temperature warms, reindeer populations are expected to grow even more, reducing the likelihood that polar bears would drastically reduce the reindeer population in Svalbard. The researchers do point out that bears cannot obtain enough calories from land-based food sources. Polar bears have the special capacity to digest the fatty blubber that seals produce, which usually gives them the energy they need to thrive in the chilly Arctic environment. Given that the polar bear is already listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), they could do without this issue.