A very interesting report has surfaced from Svalbard. Published by Ian Stirling and Rinie Van Meurs, it records open water hunting behaviour that kind of takes things to a new level.
In the late spring and summer, polar bears will hunt seals in and from the water. Their most common open-water hunt is an ‘aquatic stalk’ where they swim up behind seals, sometimes diving underneath ice floes and then ‘exploding’ out of the water, trying to grab an unsuspecting seal.
This bear quietly slid into the water about 50m (164 ft) away from three bearded seals basking on an ice floe. Witnesses watched him dive and then resurface, lunging at the seals, over three minutes later, much longer than previously believed. The paper suggests that this may be ‘evolution in action’.
For me, this is a huge victory for the bears. For the past ten years or more, researchers almost became entrenched in the belief that bears cannot cope with a changing climate. Obviously, in long term projections where the ice disappears, they cannot; but for many years, those of us on the ground have recognized that polar bears ‘adapt’ or say, ‘evolve’ at a much faster rate than science accepted. They are definitely not going to go down without a fight.
On the other hand, maybe this isn’t so much evolution in action as simply much as science catching up with nature. Inuit legends have long told of polar bears’ marathon swims and diving ability. For a time, it was thought that some bears lived on the bottom of the ocean. Bears would dive off a floe edge or into a crack and never be seen again. The legends of flying bears may even be related to bears that disappeared with epic dives.
Polar bears have also been recorded diving to pluck seaweed from the sea floor just for a snack. They float in a river or estuary, pretending to be an ice floe, until an unsuspecting seal or beluga whale swims past. They have been recorded hunting from submerged sand bars, appearing to be swimming. Young bears have been seen diving deep and pulling eider ducks down from below.
Needless to say, the world of polar bears, especially their world in the open water and on land, is really just opening up to us. More than ever, we will see new revelations of their adaptations to swimming, open water hunting and summer foraging. More than ever, these observations will likely correlate with traditional knowledge and northern lore.