Global Warming’s Sad, Savage Reality: Polar Bear Cannibalism

In lean times, polar bears turn on each other for food.

Horror on ice: Arctic polar bears channel their inner Hannibal Lecter in ever-warming world. (Photo: Jenny E. Ross)
Sal holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Don’t put much stock in global warming? Think climate change is a commie scheme cooked up by pencil-pushing scientists jonseing for government funding? That it’s a grand hoax, a contrivance of Biblical proportions that cannot be proven true beyond a tangible, visual­ doubt? Tell that to Arctic polar bears, who, in an ever-warming world, have resorted to murdering and eating their babies in a last-ditch attempt to find a solid meal.

Snapped by environmental photographer Jenny Ross on July 21, 2010, but only released today, this graphic photograph depicts an adult polar bear dragging the body of a young bear it had just killed across the Arctic ice in the far north of Norway.

While Inuit hunters in Greenland and Canada have long known that it was within the range of possiblities for adult male polar bears to kill their young for food, empirical evidence seems to indicate that incidences of filicide are on the rise.

“There are increasing numbers of observations of it occurring, particularly on land where polar bears are trapped ashore, completely food-deprived for extended periods of time due to the loss of sea ice as a result of climate change,” said Ross, to the BBC.

Speaking at the American Geophysical Union Fall meeting this week, Ross explained the circumstances by which she photographed the cannibalism.

“As soon as the adult male became aware that a boat was approaching him, he basically stood to attention—he straddled the young bear’s body, asserting control over it and conveying ‘this is my food’,” said Ross. “He then picked up the bear in his jaws and, just using the power of his jaws and his neck, transported it from one floe to another. And eventually, when he was a considerable distance away, he stopped and fed on the carcass.”

In the December issue of the journal Arctic, Ross and biologist Ian Stirling of Environment Canada in Edmonton write that the killing—as well as two others photographed by Ross—portend a wave of bad news for polar bears.

A warming climate and less and less sea ice will send seals northward even earlier in the summer, and the frequency of intraspecies predation could increase.

“It seems that because of the circumstances of the loss of sea ice—that kind of behavior may be becoming more common,” said Ross, to the BBC.

Looking at this sad image gives me the heebie-jeebies about the future of our planet and its limited natural resources. In late October, the number of Earthly inhabitants crossed the 7 billion threshold. About half of that number was added just in the past 40 years, and 3 billion more are expected by 2100. There's little chance that generating food from traditional farming and livestock practices can satisfy the food needs of that many people. Will we, like the polar bear, turn on one another in a dog-eat-dog world to satisfy our nutritional needs? Who knows, but I for one am glad I won’t be around to see that Soylent Green day.

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