Would polar bears thrive in Antarctica?

06 December 2015


If polar bears were transported to Antarctica, would they thrive?


Felicity Bedford spoke to Dr Iain Staniland from the British Antarctic Survey to find an answer to this chilly challenge...

Ian - Starving Polar bears desperately clinging to lumps of melting ice is an image that most people relate to regarding global warming and the threats to wildlife and, given their iconic status, it has even been suggested we could save the polar bear by translocating them to the Antarctic.

Felicity - But would they more successful hunting at the South Pole? Let's drop them in and find out.

Ian - Polar bears would do very well if transplanted into the Antarctic - well at least for a few years. From a food point of view it would be polar bear heaven. In the Arctic the seals and other potential prey species have evolved lifestyles that minimises their risk of being eaten by polar bears but, in contrast, larger Antarctic animals such as seals and penguins have evolved without the risk of being eaten. Because of this the penguins are typically quite bold and inquisitive and will often approach you to have a look, and seals in the Antarctic range in behaviour from total indifference to outright aggression. For example Antarctic fur seals have a reputation for chasing and trying to bite people, and whilst this is great for tourism and researchers - well except for getting bitten obviously, it would make Antarctic wildlife the equivalent of an all you can eat buffet as far as Polar bears are concerned. The most obvious effect of putting polar bears into the Antarctic would be a catastrophic decline in the seal and penguin populations and some very fat and happy bears.

Felicity - So far so good for the polar bears, although news isn't so good for the penguins. Are there any other benefits for polar bears in Antarctica?

Ian - Given that most of the industrialised nations are in the northern hemisphere and are encircling the Arctic, it's no surprise that polar bears are basically being poisoned by their food. The remoteness of Antarctica and its greater separation from these sources of pollution means that whilst such toxins abound in the environment, the levels are currently much less significant.

Felicity - Plenty of food and less pollution. This all sounds too good to be true..

Ian - But it's not all good news for the Polar bears, there are also several less obvious factors that come into play. There'll be many unknowns such as the risk of the bears of the exposure to new diseases, and then what would happen when the bears have eaten all the seals and penguins? History teaches us that animal translocations often have unpredictable results and so it's probably best that polar bears and penguins only meet on badly designed Christmas cards.

Felicity - Thanks Ian. I'm sure all penguin lovers will agree, the solution to Polar bear conservation lies in protecting their Arctic habitat, not moving them south.

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