Scientists Reveal That Bears Have Stopped Hibernating March 16, 2007 1:40 PM
Climate Change vs Mother Nature: Scientists
reveal that bears have stopped hibernating
Published: 21 December 2006
Bears have stopped hibernating in the mountains
of northern Spain, scientists revealed yesterday,
in what may be one of the strongest signals yet
of how much climate change is affecting the natural world.
In a December in which bumblebees, butterflies
and even swallows have been on the wing in
Britain, European brown bears have been lumbering
through the forests of Spain's Cantabrian
mountains, when normally they would already be in their long, annual sleep.
Bears are supposed to slumber throughout the
winter, slowing their body rhythms to a minimum
and drawing on stored resources, because frozen
weather makes food too scarce to find. The barely
breathing creatures can lose up to 40 per cent of
their body weight before warmer springtime weather rouses them back to life.
But many of the 130 bears in Spain's northern
cordillera - which have a slightly different
genetic identity from bear populations elsewhere
in the world - have remained active throughout
recent winters, naturalists from Spain's Brown
Bear Foundation (La Fundación Oso Pardo - FOP) said yesterday.
The change is affecting female bears with young
cubs, which now find there are enough nuts,
acorns, chestnuts and berries on thebleak
mountainsides to make winter food-gathering
sorties "energetically worthwhile", scientists at
the foundation, based in Santander, the
Cantabrian capital, told El Pais newspaper.
"If the winter is mild, the female bears find it
is energetically worthwhile to make the effort to
stay awake and hunt for food," said Guillermo
Palomero, the FOP's president and the
co-ordinator of a national plan for bear
conservation. This changed behaviour, he said,
was probably a result of milder winters. "The
high Cantabrian peaks freeze all winter, but our
teams of observers have been able to follow the
perfect outlines of tracks from a group of bears," he said.
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March 16, 2007 1:44 PM
The FOP is financed by Spain's Environment
Ministry and the autonomous regions of Cantabria,
Asturias, Galicia and Castilla-Leon, where the
bears roam in search of mates. Indications of
winter bear activity have been detected for some
time, but only in the past three years have such
signs been observed "with absolute certainty", according to the scientists.
"Mother bears with cubs make the effort to seek
out nuts and berries if these have been
plentiful, and snow is scarce," Mr Palomero said,
adding that even for those bears - mostly mature
males - who do close down for the winter, "their
hibernation period gets shorter every year".
The behaviour change suggests that global warming
is responsible for this revolution in ursine
behaviour, says Juan Carlos García Cordón, a
professor of geography at Santander's Cantabria
University, and a climatology specialist.
"Meteorological data in the high mountains is
scarce, but it seems that the warming is more
noticeable in the valleys where cold air
accumulates," Dr García Cordón said. "There is a
decline in snowfall, and in the time snow remains
on the ground, which makes access to food easier.
As autumn comes later, and spring comes earlier,
bears have an extra month to forage for food.
"We cannot prove that non-hibernation is caused
by global warming, but everything points in that direction."
Spanish meteorologists predict that this year is
likely to be the warmest year on record in Spain,
just as it is likely to be the warmest year
recorded in Britain (where temperature records go
back to 1659). Globally, 2006 is likely to be the
sixth warmest year in a record going back the mid-19th century.
Mark Wright, the science adviser to the World
Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the UK, said that
bears giving up hibernation was "what we would expect" with climate change.
"It does not in itself prove global warming, but
it is certainly consistent with predictions of
it," he said. "What is particularly interesting
about this is that hitherto the warming has
seemed to be happening fastest at the poles and
at high latitudes, and now we're getting examples
of it happening further south, and heading towards the equator.
"I think it's an indication of what's to come. It
shows climate change is not a natural phenomenon
but something that is affecting not only on the
weather, but impacting on the natural world in
ways we're only now beginning to understand."
The European brown bear, with its characteristic
pelt that ranges from dark brown through shades
of grey to pale gold, has black paws and a tawny
face. It has poor vision, although it sees in
colour and at night, and if threatened rears on
its hind legs to get a better view. It can live
for up to 30 years. It has acute hearing, and an
especially fine sense of smell that enables it to
detect food from a long distance. It is
carnivorous, but has a multifunctional dental
system with powerful canines and grinding molars
perfectly adapted to an omnivorous diet.
The animals would normally begin hibernation
between October and December, and resume activity between March and May.
The Cantabrian version of the brown bear, a
protected species, was once as endangered as the
Iberian lynx or the imperial eagle still are in
Spain, but is now recovering in numbers. Between
70 and 90 bears roamed Spain's northern mountains
in the early 1990s; now 130 live there.
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Other Seasonal Freaks March 16, 2007 1:47 PM
Other seasonal freaks
* The osprey found in the lochs and glens of the
Scottish Highlands in the summer months, usually
migrate to west Africa to avoid the freeze. This
winter, osprey have been spotted in Suffolk and
Devon. Swallows, which also normally migrate to
Africa for the winter have been also seen across England this winter.
* The red admiral butterfly, below, which
hibernates in winter, has been spotted in gardens
this month, as has the common darter dragonfly,
usually seen between mid-June and October, which
has been seen in Cheshire, Norfolk and Hampshire.
* The smew, a diving duck, flies west to the UK
for winter from Russia and Scandinavia. This
year, though, they have been mainly absent from
the lakes and reservoirs between The Wash and the Severn.
* Evergreen ivy and ox-eye daisies are still
blooming and some oak trees, which are usually
bare by November, were still in leaf on Christmas Day last year.
* The buff-tailed bumblebee is usually first seen
in spring. Worker bees die out by the first
frost, while fertilised queen bees survive
underground between March and September. This
December, bees have been seen in Nottingham and York.
* Primroses and daffodils are already flowering
at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, in
Carmarthenshire. 'Early Sensation' daffodils
usually flower from January until February.
Horticulturalists put it down to the warm weather.
* Scientists in the Netherlands reported more
than 240 wild plants flowering in the first 15
days of December, along with more than 200
cultivated species. Examples included cow parsley
and sweet violets. Just two per cent of these
plants normally flower in winter, while 27 per
cent end their main flowering period in autumn and 56 per cent before October.
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