Strange Svalbard: Interesting Wildlife Behaviour

John Yerbury

29 Nov 2016

To survive in the inhospitable Arctic wilderness, the resident fauna has to be extremely opportunistic. This gives rise to rare behaviours caused by the need for adaptive strategies to survive. Because of this, you never know what you might see on a trip to Svalbard.

Bears are famously opportunistic and most stories detailing strange behaviour involves them. Being true omnivores, they will literally eat anything. Given their first choice, the polar bears would happily feast on seals to their heart’s content and their time is mostly spent wandering the pack ice and islands in search of these nutritional meals. But sometimes they are observed doing extraordinary things in the endless quest for food. Many people will remember the amazing footage from the BBC’s series ‘The Hunt’ where a large male bear was seen mountaineering along a sheer cliff face, hoovering up chicks and eggs from any nest he could reach. This illustrates the lengths to which these animals will go for a relatively small snack.

One expedition leader to Svalbard once witnessed a polar bear come very close to successfully capturing a Greenland shark. This is very odd behaviour, especially as the flesh of this shark is toxic, reeking of ammonia due to them urinating through their skin. It has been stipulated in recent times, that the Greenland shark will kill and eat polar bears and remains have been found in the sharks’ stomachs to suggest this. But scientists who study the bears or sharks remain sceptical that the bear would lose such a conflict if they were in good condition. Far more likely is that the shark’s victim had already passed or was in a weakened state.

Polar bears are generally thought of as solitary animals and usually this is the case. But social tendencies in the Arctic are always dictated by the amount of available food. As shown in the BBC’s ‘Frozen Planet’ a whale carcass washed up on a shore in Svalbard and for the next year, large groups of polar bears congregated to feast together. 

During this time social behaviour was constantly observed, with fully grown bears even seen playing together after filling themselves with whale blubber.

Sometimes, through desperation, polar bears will try their luck capturing a walrus. These scenarios usually do not end well for the bear. While the infants are certainly a potential prey, the adults pose a very dangerous threat. Even a large bear wouldn’t be able to pierce the walruses’ thick blubber with their claws and teeth, and the characteristic tusks could easily cause serious harm. If a bear approaches a colony of walruses, any mothers with pups would usually head straight into the sea while the large adults merely glance at them and go back to sleep.

There is a very interesting behaviour of walruses that has never been filmed, but does occur enough that locals consider it part of their repertoire: hunting seals. They mainly feed on bottom dwelling invertebrates in shallow waters, using their stiff whiskers to sense molluscs and powerful lips to suck out the innards from the shell. But occasionally they will attack a seal using a technique similar to that of pythons and boa constrictors. They may seem clumsy on land and it is difficult to imagine the limbs being of any use other than swimming, but their flippers are extremely powerful. If they manage to catch a seal they use these limbs to squeeze the victim, suffocating it, then suck out the blubber.

The Arctic tern is a particularly grumpy bird which has the furthest migration of any species on Earth, flying between the Arctic and Antarctic every year. As they nest on open ground, making them vulnerable mainly to Arctic foxes, they are notoriously aggressive towards anyone or anything that gets too close. At times they seem to take issue with particular individuals and will continue to dive-bomb them for quite a substantial distance from the nest they are protecting. They have even been seen to hound people from the shore, keep attacking them on-board a zodiac and only give up once the person was safely inside their cabin on the ship.

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