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Climate

Polar bears forced to consume highly contaminated food

Climate changes in the Arctic are forcing polar bears to alter their diet and consume seals with high levels of industrial contaminants
Climate
A diet change for polar bears could have a negative effect on their health (Photo: Colourbox)

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Researchers have discovered that the diet of the Arctic polar bear has dramatically worsened over the past 30 years.

Scientists from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, Aarhus University in Denmark and a number of Canadian institutions examined body fat samples taken from 310 polar bears hunted in Scoresbysund in eastern Greenland.

The samples contained extremely high concentrations of toxins that are believed to have come from the polar bears choice of prey.

Professor Rune Dietz from Aarhus University said that climate change has caused Arctic polar bears have recently switched from the high Arctic ringed seals to sub-Arctic harp and hooded seals, which “have a higher content of contaminants because they live closer to the industrialized world".

A noxious stew
These contaminants, called persistent organic pollutants (POP), primarily come from pesticides, insecticides and industrial chemicals. They are toxic, long lasting and can travel vast distances and accumulate in animals and ecosystems. They can sometimes prove fatal as they generally weaken immune systems, damage reproductive and neurological organs and can cause cancer.

The chemicals found in the tissue of Arctic wild life are believed to be carried to the region on wind and water currents where they accumulate and magnify in the Arctic food chain. Polar ice traps these contaminants which are then gradually released into the environment during melting periods, sometimes months or even years later.

Potential polar bear migration
Biologists worry that over time polar bears may lose their access to sub-Arctic seals as they require packed ice to give birth to their cubs and the rapid melting of ice may make this difficult. Arctic polar bears may then be forced to move southward in search of alternative food sources, where they will increasingly come into competition with other wild life.