Polar Bears: The Fate of an Icon

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Polar bears are one of the most iconic animals on our planet. Worldwide, even people who would never see one are drawn to these charismatic arctic ice hunters. They are the world's largest terrestrial carnivore, and despite being born on land, they spend most of their lives out on the sea ice and are considered a marine mammal. Current global studies estimate there are around 20,000 animals in some 19 discrete circumpolar populations. Aside from pregnant females denning in the winter months to give birth, the white bears do not hibernate. They spend their winters on the sea ice hunting seals, an activity they are spectacularly adapted for. Research on these animals is incredibly difficult because of the inhospitable surroundings they inhabit and how inaccessible they make the bears. For many years, the sum of our understanding of the natural history of polar bears came from tracks, scats, the remains of their kills, abandoned dens, and anecdotal observations of native hunters, explorers, and early biologists. Nonetheless, the last 40 years have seen a much better picture of their biology emerge thanks to, first, dedicated Canadian researchers and, later, truly international efforts of workers from many countries. Veterinarians have contributed to our knowledge of the bears by delivering and monitoring anesthesia, obtaining blood samples, performing necropsies, investigating their reproduction, conducting radiotelemetry studies, and examining their behavior. Recently, new technologies have been developed that revolutionize the study of the lives and natural history of undisturbed polar bears. These advances include better satellite radiotelemetry equipment and the development of remote-controlled miniature devices equipped with high-definition cameras. Such new modalities provide dramatic new insights into the life of polar bears. The remarkable degree of specialized adaptation to life on the sea ice that allowed the bears to be successful is the very reason that the bears are so vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Polar bears have few alternatives if their habitat (the sea ice) and their access to their ringed seal prey rapidly disappear. Predictions that polar bears may be able to adjust and sustain themselves on alternative food sources are not based on reality. Spring breakup of the sea ice is happening much earlier as well as fall freezeup is getting later, thereby prolonging the open water period that the bears are shore bound. If trends continue and the ice continues to disappear, the effect on polar bears would be devastating. Veterinarians must stay involved in polar bear studies and in multidisciplinary conservation studies dealing with threatened and endangered species worldwide. On account of their training, veterinarians can offer a unique skill set that can provide access to a number of technologies critical to conservation efforts. The oath veterinarians take on graduation from veterinary school charges them to be sworn to the “conservation of animal resources” and in the education of the public. We are only as good as the oaths we keep.

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