Arctic Polar Bears Are Getting An Unhealthy Serving Of Plastic In Their Diets

Source: Hakai Magazine/Gloria Dickie 

Photo: Alan Wilson/Wikimedia Commons 

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Earlier this year, 52 polar bears descended upon Belushya Guba, Russia, prompting the small military settlement on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago to declare a state of emergency. The so-called “polar bear takeover” was a dramatic example of a widespread issue: where bears and unsecured waste overlap, bruins are likely to be found muzzle-deep in trash. That’s a threat to human safety, and garbage diets are bad news for bears, too.

Dumps are often chock-full of plastic and, as a new survey from Alaska shows, polar bears are ingesting a lot of it. In an analysis of the stomach contents of 51 polar bears that had been killed by subsistence hunters in the southern Beaufort Sea between 1996 and 2018, researchers led by Raphaela Stimmelmayr, a wildlife veterinarian with Alaska’s North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, found that 25 percent of the bears had plastic in their stomachs.

Ingesting plastic can cause serious problems for polar bears because of their physiology. Polar bears have a very narrow pyloric sphincter—the outlet from the stomach to the small intestine—so large items can cause painful blockages.

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Photo:  Alan Wilson/Wikimedia Commons

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