“They’re living in a really interesting way, and there’s a lot we can learn from how these bears managed to live completely cut off from other polar bears for a few hundred years,” says Kristin Laidre, a principal scientist at the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington. She was one of the lead researchers studying the Greenland polar bears.
Laidre hypothesizes that polar bears first arrived in southeast Greenland after being caught on sea ice that traveled down the country’s eastern coast. After hundreds of years, they’ve become genetically distinct from other subpopulations of polar bears. The Greenland bears hunt on sea ice when it is available and on freshwater ice that breaks off from glaciers for the rest of the year. “For the polar bear, ice is ice,” Laidre says. “It can be giant icebergs down to small chunks of floating ice.” When that ice forms a stable hunting platform, the bears will use it.
Polar bears are still in danger. Climate change is causing the ice they need to survive to disappear. “This study doesn’t change what we think about polar bears in the future,” warns Laidre. “But it could tell us something about how polar bears could hang on as a species.”