As the world watches the magnificent polar bear (Ursus maritimus) inch towards a climate-driven extinction that even the largest living land carnivore cannot stop, a tiny ray of hope arose this week in Greenland, were a previously unknown population of polar bears was discovered – a population that was not just living but thriving in an area much smaller than the space other populations of polar bears have difficulty surviving in. While we look at how this group was discovered and how they managed to beat the odds that are killing their cousins, keep in the backs of your minds the Sasquatch – the cryptid many believe to be as large as the polar bear. Many Bigfoot are believed to live in the far northern areas of Canada, and many Yeti – the ‘polar’ Sasquatch – allegedly live in the frigid Himalayas. Could we learn from these polar bears how Bigfoot might live hidden in small areas and avoid human detection?
“This was just a wholly unexpected finding. They are the most genetically isolated polar bears in the world, and they’re different from all the other currently accepted 19 subpopulations around the Arctic.”
Kristin Laidre, a polar scientist at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory and lead author of the report on the bears published in the journal Science, explains that this 20th known subpopulation of polar bears is unusual for a number of reasons. For starters, it lives in the southeast corner of Greenland – one of only two populations of polar bears on the island. While they number in the hundreds, this population stays in a tiny corner with walls of ice sheets blocking them in from the west and the ocean keeping them confined from the east. This is typically as far south as polar bears are found – the corner is actually in the subarctic region … most polar bears live above the Arctic Circle. As a result, one of the adaptations this species has made is acclimating itself to warmer temperatures.
“They're very local bears. They don't move very far. They stay in the same fjord for years. They have sea ice on average about 100 days per year, and we know that's just way too short for a polar bear to survive.”
As Laidre explained to The Washington Post, these should be called ‘impossible’ polar bears because they shouldn’t be able to live in these warm and confined conditions – it’s estimated that each bear occupies a five square mile range, while those of other groups can cover 900 miles in a year. And yet, they have – Laidre estimates they have probably been isolated in this remote region for hundreds of thousands of years. Analysis of DNA samples obtained by the team and by subsistence hunters confirms these are not just geographically but genetically the most “isolated polar bears on the planet.” That genetic isolation includes the other polar bear population on Greenland. Which brings up the question: how did these to groups become so completely separate?
“What’s interesting or special about this new population of bears is that they actually seem to know how to deal with this.”
Fernando Ugarte, a member of Greenland’s Institute of Natural Resources, explains to National Geographic how he and Lairde studied 36 years worth of DNA samples and discovered the so-called “founder effect” – the southeastern population was started by a small number of polar bears who became separated from the larger group and interbred for generations, with all of the current population sharing a common ancestor that lived about two hunded years ago. The “this” they dealt is what got them to this isolated spot -- the Eastern Greenland Coastal Current. This massive, high-velocity southward flow of waters along Greenland’s east coast carries a constant parade of ice floes that break of the northeast coast. Polar bears hunt seals by hiding on ice floes, so it was natural to ride them south. What was unnatural is that when they went ashore, their return route was blocked.
“The bears themselves have a basic job to accomplish. They've got to be on the ice for long enough to be able to kill enough seals to store enough fat to live for a year."
Ian Stirling, a polar bear biologist at the University of Alberta, tells NPR that these bears have successfully adapted to being blocked in by becoming better swimmers. Ugarte and his team managed to tag some of the polar bears and track them on hunts. Although their ice season was shorter than for northern polar bears, they still managed to find their fill of seals. Unfortunately, that Eastern Greenland Coastal Current often took them over one hundred miles from their little corner of Greenland with no land to walk back on. Ugarte’s tracking devices showed the polar bears swam back against the current in frigid waters within a month or two.
“If anything, this study really is another piece of evidence of the fundamental relationship between polar bears and ice-covered water. Do they really care if that ice is fresh water or salt water? Probably not, as long as there are seals underneath it.”
Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at the conservation organization Polar Bears International, points out that these polar bears had the two things they need to survive – food and the means to get back home to their small plot to sleep off their feast until it’s time to eat again.
Which brings us to Bigfoot. Could Sasquatch, Yeti and the other alleged subspecies of the cryptid have survived in small, isolated areas like these polar bears have – inbreeding, moving about to eat, returning to their hidden living space – for hundreds of thousands of years? That’s the argument that many primatologists have presented to support their belief that a Bigfoot primate could indeed have done – and still be doing – just that in the dense woods of Washinton State, Oregon, Canada, the northeastern United States and other Bigfoot hotspots? Like these polar bears, could they have adapted new modes of movement, perhaps via secret pathways, that human primates cannot see or follow?
The good news is, Bigfoot doesn’t need ice to survive. The bad news is, even the isolated polar bears of southeastern Greenland do, and climate change could one day put them in the same danger of extinction as their northern cousins.
What would Bigfoot do?