Polar Bears Hunt on Land as Ice Shrinks

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That change occurred, in part, because melting sea ice has brought the polar bears ashore earlier. As a result, "they're starting to overlap the nesting periods of lesser snow geese," giving the bears an opportunity to dine on the birds' eggs, Gormezano told LiveScience.

"We can't say for sure that the amount of calories in this food will compensate for lost seal hunting opportunities." Gormezano said. "But it shows that [the polar bears] are flexible and they can change their behavior."

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The bears have also taken advantage of a caribou bonanza: Surveys in the research area in the 1960s found about 100 caribou, whereas nowadays there are between 3,000 and 5,000 Gormezano said.

Long-term Outlook

Despite the advantages it brings, the bears' flexible foraging is unlikely to save them from climate change and disappearing sea ice, said Steven C. Amstrup, a researcher with Polar Bears International, who was not involved in the study.

"Some of these things could buy some individual bears a bit more time. But the bottom line is that there is no evidence that any alternate foods will benefit polar bears at the population level," Amstrup told LiveScience.

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Even now, the shore environment only has enough food to support the smallest grizzly bears at a low population density, Amstrup said.

"What logic would suggest that we could force whole populations of the largest bears in the world into habitats that currently support only small numbers of small bears?" Amstrup said.

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