A polar bear is seen killing and eating its own cub right in front its mother in a video released by National Geographic yesterday.
The video footage may be a first of its kind.
Cannibalism among polar bears is not a new thing; it has been documented before in various studies and with photographic evidence. However, a detailed video capturing the gruesome act seems to be a first.
The video was taken from the National Geographic Explorer ship in summer 2015, somewhere off Baffin Island in Canada.
In the video, a male polar bear is seen chasing a female polar bear and its cub. He outruns the female polar bear, jumps into the pool where the cub has dived in, and grabs it by its throat.
The female polar bear tries to intervene by jumping into the pool too but eventually gives up and runs for her life (polar bears are known to cannibalise their own partners too). The male polar bear then brings the (presumably dead) cub out of the pool, drags it to a distance, and begins eating it.
The gory spectacle left the people watching from the ship totally transfixed. For ship captain Oliver Kruess, the whole thing was an extremely emotional experience. Same was the case for naturalist Jennifer Kingsley, who was watching the scene through her binoculars and couldn't take her eyes off it even for a moment.
"It was really hard to look away... Sure, you understand that this is life in the Arctic, and this is something we know about polar bear biology. But to see it is really dramatic."
Now, the natural question remains: What is it that compels a polar bear to kill and eat its own cub?
The answer: seals.
Apparently, adult male polar bears resort to cannibalism when they don't have enough seals to eat.
Seals are the main source of food for polar bears. In the summer months, as more and more ice melts and the seals lounging on the ice floes begin disappearing into the water, polar bears are left with nothing to hunt.
Nutritionally challenged, they start looking closer home for prey. Being highly "opportunistic predators," as some experts have dubbed them, defenceless baby polar bears become easy food sources for them.
But is this normal polar bear behaviour?
Environmental photojournalist Jenny Ross and polar bear biologist Ian Sterling, writing in the journal Arctic, seem to think so.
"By late summer, when the available ice and the number of seals accessible to hunt are both greatly reduced, young polar bears may offer one of the few prey choices still available for adult males to hunt from the surface of the residual sea ice... Intraspecific predation [animal killing their own kind] for food on the remaining sea ice at this time of year may be relatively normal and possibly occurs more frequently than has previously been thought."
Climate change may have also played a big part in the rise of this behavior.
Arctic sea ice cover has been thinning steadily over the years, recording its lowest coverage recently. Less ice cover means fewer ice floes for seals to rest on, leading to a fewer number of seals for polar bears to hunt and, consequently, more instances of polar bear cannibalism.
And not only cannibalism, according to a report in National Geographic. Climate change and thinning ice cover have forced polar bears to adopt food strategies that they had never taken to before.
Polar bears have started killing dolphins for food, something they had never done before. They have started eating goose eggs. They are not even averse to eating human food if they get the opportunity.
In this desperate scenario, cannibalism simply becomes one more nutritional opportunity in a set of other fast-depleting nutritional opportunities.
[This video contains graphic images. Viewer discretion advised.][Image via Shutterstock]