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Polar Bears Are Eating Dolphin. The Reason Why Affects Us All.

06/15/2015 03:35 EDT | Updated 06/15/2015 03:59 EDT

Scientists have encountered a first: a polar bear dining on dolphins in northern Norway, and the behaviour is being blamed on climate change.

A study published in academic journal Polar Research this month had scientists recounting the first recorded instance of a polar bear feasting on white-beaked dolphins, in April 2014.

Researchers spotted a single bear munching on a white-beaked dolphin carcass about five metres from shore in Raudfjorden, an area in Svalbard, which is a group of islands in the Barents Sea.

The study's authors also found the bear's tracks close to a second dolphin carcass that was "little more than the spine, rib cage and skull" when it was found.

polar bear dolphin

polar bear dolphin

The scientists spotted the bear covering the first dolphin with snow, possibly to stop it from being scavenged by foxes, gulls or other bears.

Caching, they said, is also an uncommon behaviour for this species.

White-beaked dolphins have been sighted in Svalbard before, but not this far north in either the spring or the winter.

The authors speculated that they became trapped in dense ice that was pushed into Raudfjorden by strong northerly winds, and were possibly killed as they came up for air.

"It is likely that the presence of the dolphins in early spring was due to the lack of sea ice in the period prior to our observation," the study reads.

The sighting of a polar bear dining on dolphin is so rare because their regular diet normally consists of ringed and bearded seals.

But climate change is warming waters and leading new species north, author Jon Aars told Agence France-Presse.

"I don't think that this signifies a great upheaval in the diet of the carnivores," Aars told the agency. "It's just that the polar bear is coming into contact with species they have not been used to meeting until now."

Dolphins, the study said, could provide polar bears with a "significant source of food" over long periods of time after being trapped, especially as "access to ringed seals and bearded seals may decline in future years."

But climate change isn't just affecting the bears' diets. It's also forcing them to seek out new homes.

Research published in PLOS ONE from earlier this year found the bears are seeking out Arctic areas where ice lasts longer, such as the Arctic Archipelago, north of Canada's mainland and near the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Reuters reported.

Bears have been migrating there for the last 15 to 45 years, researchers said.

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