Polar bears use tools to hunt walruses

This illustration, from an 1865 book by adventurer Charles Francis Hall, shows a polar bear using a stone to kill a walrus. (Photo: Charles Francis Hall, Library of Congress, public domain)

With large tusks and weighing over 2,000 pounds, walruses are a formidable enemy to arctic wildlife. But as Living on Earth’s Don Lyman reports, polar bears are using tools such as blocks of ice or large rocks to hunt walruses as the bears’ access to other food sources dwindles.


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Transcription

CURWOOD: Coming soon – Bald eagle populations are rebounding, making them easy to spot even in the most unexpected places.

But first this note on emerging science from Don Lyman.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

LYMAN: Weighing over 2,000 pounds, with large tusks and heavy skulls, walruses are a formidable arctic mammal. But research now suggests polar bears may have found a way to kill the massive pinnipeds. For centuries, Inuit hunters in Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic have told stories of polar bears dropping large rocks or blocks of ice at walruses. Explorers and naturalists have often dismissed these stories as myths. But the persistence of such stories, along with photos of a polar bear in a Japanese zoo using tools to obtain airborne meat, has compelled biologists to investigate. Researchers reviewed historical and recent sightings reported by Inuit hunters and non-Inuit researchers. They also looked at documented sightings of polar bears and brown bears using tools in captivity to access food. The researchers concluded that “tool use in wild polar bears, although infrequent, occurs in the case of walrus hunting.” Animals’ use of tools to solve problems is generally considered a sign of higher intelligence, but studies of the cognitive abilities of polar bears are lacking. However, scientists say there is plenty of sighting information to suggest that polar bears are highly intelligent. Polar bears feed primarily on seals, which they hunt by searching for seal breathing holes on the ice floe. But climate change is melting Arctic sea ice, so some scientists think hungry polar bears could increasingly attack walruses for food. That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I am Don Lyman.

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Learn more about polar bears and walruses here

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