For the first time ever, scientists have observed a polar bear catching and eating white-beaked dolphins. It’s suspected that the dolphins ventured too far north and became stranded in the ice — a possible consequence of climate change.

The observation was made by Jon Aars and his colleagues from the Norwegian Polar Institute on April 23, 2014, on a small fjord in Svalbard, Norway.

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“This is the first record of [white-beaked dolphins (Lagenorhynchus albirostris)] as polar bear prey,” write the authors in their study, which now appears at the science journal Polar Research.

“White-beaked dolphins are frequent visitors to Svalbard waters in summer, but have not previously been reported this far north in early spring. We suggest they were trapped in the ice after strong northerly winds the days before, and possibly killed when forced to surface for air at a small opening in the ice,” they write.

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( © Samuel Blanc / www.sblanc.com )

The bear managed to catch not one but two dolphins, and it probably did so in a manner similar to they way they capture seals. These animals are opportunistic predators, and they rarely pass down an opportunity for a meal. By the time the researchers arrived, one dolphin had already been consumed, while the second was being deliberately covered in snow — a possible sign that the bear was preserving it for a later meal.

But this wasn’t the only incident documented by the researchers.

“During the following ice-free summer and autumn, at least seven different white-beaked dolphin carcasses were observed in or near the same area,” they write. “We suggest, based on the area and the degree to which these dolphins had decayed, that they were likely from the same pod and also suffered death due to entrapment in the ice in April.”

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The team says that at least six different polar bears were seen scavenging on the carcasses.

Read the entire study at Polar Research: “White-beaked dolphins trapped in the ice and eaten by polar bears.”


Contact the author at george@io9.com and @dvorsky. Top image by Jon Aars et al./Polar Research/Norwegian Polar Institute

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