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Polar bears have lived in a very hot climate before, but will they survive current climate change?

While the causes of the warming climate are still debating, the fact is that we are constantly breaking records in terms of how warm our climate is getting. Will polar animals, typically thriving in cold environment, survive this? A new research revealed that it would not be the first time for polar bears.

The truth of the matter is that Earth‘s climate is always changing. There have been periods of prolonged cold, characterized as ice age, and there have been times when Earth was actually warmer than it is now. An international team of scientists analysed a jaw bone of a polar bear, found in Norway, and made a surprising discovery – polar bears survived a period thousands of years ago that was warmer than today. The jaw bone belonged to an adult male that lived and died somewhere between 110,000 to 130,000 to years ago. Scientists say that polar bears did not change dramatically in this time.

Polar bears typically stay on ice, because on land they face humans and animal competitors. Image credit: Arturo de Frias Marques via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Finding polar bear fossils is actually quite a rare occurrence. These animals live and die on ice, which means that quite often their bodies just sink to the bottom of the sea. Now that scientists did have a fossilized piece of polar bear’s jaw, they started working to figure out its genetic background and age. Scientists determined that this is evidence that polar bears lived in the area some 130 thousand years ago. This means that they had to endure temperatures much higher than we have today. The period, called Eemian, was very hot, but polar bears definitely survived.

Eemian was so hot that hippos used to live in the area where London is now. And polar bears probably could not have enjoyed sea ice. Scientists hope that this gives at least some indication of the future – maybe they will survive this changing climate as well?

Conditions have changed since then. Now polar bears would face strict competition from grizzly bears on land. Sandra Talbot, a member of the research team, said: “We can’t predict whether the polar bear is too far out (in its evolution towards a life on ice). It’s interesting that there are a few examples of hybridization (between polar bears and brown bears). That’s something worth watching”.

While it is nice to know that polar bears have been living in hot climate before, it doesn’t mean they could do that again. Humans are polluting and are making arctic waters busy with our ships and exploration for natural resources. Furthermore, back in a Eemian period polar bears didn’t have such competition on land. Nowadays they would get overpowered by grizzly bears or, if they come too close to human settlements, they get shot.

However, any hope is better than no hope. Maybe this discovery means that polar bears can adapt to changing environment very well?

 

Source: University of Alaska Fairbanks

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