Polar Bears: Tundra Heartbreak

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A large male polar bear out on the tundra.

A large male polar bear out on the tundra.

JoAnne is in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to study polar bears. Read her previous post from the field, Polar Bears: Who Was Your First?

I will open by telling you that this story will break your heart. Please know this will not be easy to read, but it is a story that needs to be told.

On November 20 here in Churchill, just east of Gordon Point, we saw the tragic loss of a 11-month-old cub and the grieving of the loss by its mother. We did not witness the actual death but the aftermath: a young adult female with her cub was attacked by an adult male polar bear. The female lost the battle as the large male overpowered her and killed her cub. Valiantly she charged him and tried to get her cub back, but it was too late.

Soon other bears arrived in the area, but the large male prevailed and began to consume the small body in a hill of willow bushes. Still the mother continued to wander the area with every hope of saving her cub. The male eventually moved the small body out to the coast where the mother had less opportunity to charge him, but he left much of the pelt behind.

 The mother bear carries the pelt from her cub.

The mother bear carries her cub's pelt.

The mother continued to circle the male, risking even more harm from the other bears gathering if not from the male. Eventually she moved back to the willows, desperately searching for her cub. What she found was the pelt. She picked the pelt up in her mouth, carrying it and swinging her head side to side, a behavior that bears do in extreme stress. The mother charged at the other bears, never dropping her precious possession. She wandered in this manner for a long time. We left her at dark still very unsettled, but she had finally placed her cub’s remains near a willow bush, protected from the wind.

It was indeed heartbreaking. We don’t really understand why this sometime happens. But in my nine years of visiting Churchill, it is the first time I have seen this. Many of my colleagues who have been here for decades have not witnessed this. We don’t know why, but this is the third cub death this year caused by another bear. I can only hope this is not a sign of what is to come as we lose yet more ice to our warming climate.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Watch the San Diego Zoo’s polar trio daily on Polar Cam.