Locations: Arctic Circle + Bronx Zoo, NY
No. I am not writing from the Arctic Circle, though the blizzard that just hit the Northeast sure made my usual stomping grounds resemble the North Pole. Watching the whiteout in New York City on CNN reminded me of my visit there with my son in mid-November. I took this photo of a polar bear (Ursus maritimus) at the Bronx Zoo. I bet this fellow feels a little more at home with in the snow.
The Inuit word for polar bear is “nanook”. These literal Nanooks of the North are well-adapted to frigid life on the Arctic Ocean with their hollow insulating fur, webbed front feet and high-traction pads on their paws. They feed primarily on seals, which they hunt from floating ice platforms. With global warming, the distance between sheets of ice keeps increasing, forcing polar bears to swim farther distances between hunting platforms. As a result, they have to expend more energy for the same food, so they store less fat and in some cases, drown due to fatigue. Insufficient nourishment also leads to lower birth rates and higher death rates among cubs. Listed as “threatened” by the United States Department of the Interior and as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), scientists believe that the polar bear will likely become extinct within 100 years if current rate of global warming continues.
Interestingly, habitat loss is not Nanook’s only problem. As top-of-the-food-chain predators with a diet heavy in blubber, pollutants accumulate in their bodies causing birth defects and immune system issues. Oil spills further exacerbate their plight, reducing the ability of their fur to insulate, which can cause death from hypothermia. And if bear tries to lick itself clean, it can die from kidney failure.
Pondering the polar bear, I was glad for the chance to watch this healthy bear at the Bronx Zoo. One day, his progeny might only survive in places like zoos. I prefer animals live in the wild, but if the thousands of visitors to the zoo appreciate him and learn about his challenges, perhaps a few more of them will help do something about it.