A new study confirms what Inuit hunters have been stating for centuries: Polar bears use ice and rocks to bludgeon walruses to death.
For at least 20 decades, Inuit in Greenland and Canada have recited stories of polar bears grabbing rocks or chunks of ice with their two front paws and lobbing them at the heads of unsuspecting walruses. Images of these incidences have even been recorded in Inuit art.
However, the scientific community has mostly ignored these stories or dismissed them as myth and hearsay — until now.
A polar bear expert from the University of Alberta, Ian Stirling, informed As It Happens guest host Ginella Massa that,
“One of the things that I have done over the years is worked with a lot of experienced Inuit hunters out on the sea ice, and one thing that you become aware of very quickly is that if an experienced hunter tells you he’s seen something or describes something, you can pretty well take that for granted that that’s quite true.”
“So the fact that there were so many of these kinds of reports, and they were all really quite basically similar, indicated that there was something out there that might be worth looking at.”
Stirling and his associates poured through years’ worth of recorded traditional Inuit knowledge, including an account from an Inuit hunter in the mid-’90s, and recent proof of a bear in captivity using tools to get its food. They concluded that this was a rare but very real behaviour.
Their findings are documented this past June in the Journal of the Arctic Institute of North America.
Stirling, who is a research scientist emeritus for Environment and Climate Change Canada and adjunct professor in the U of A’s Department of Biological Sciences, is one of the world’s top polar bear experts and claims he’s always been intrigued by their intelligence.
His interest was captured when he heard about GoGo, a male polar bear at a Japanese zoo that indicated a propensity for using tools — a skill that scientists have long held up as a significant indication of intelligence in animals.
GoGo’s attendants hung meat above his enclosure, out of the bear’s reach. Nevertheless, the clever creature devised multiple ways for getting his food — either hitting it with a stick or grabbing a large object and “shooting it with both paws like a basketball player” toward the food, Stirling revealed.
According to Inuit accounts, the latter is the same technique the animals use to kill walruses.
“The most significant part of this is that a bear is able to look at a situation, think of it in a three-dimensional sense, and then figure out what it might have to do to be successful.”
In simpler words, bears are problem solvers and in this case, the challenge that requires solving is the walrus’s big, thick skull.
“They normally hunt seals, and the seals have skulls which are very easy to crush when the polar bears bite,” Stirling stated.
“But walruses have very heavy, thick skulls and a polar bear simply cannot bite into the skull and kill the animal by doing that.”
Instead, a bear may seize a rock or a chunk of ice and hurl it at the walrus, either killing it outright or stunning it, so it can come in close and complete the job.
An Inuk hunter of Rankin Inlet in Nunavut, Gabriel Nirlungayuk, revealed to ScienceNews.org that he has not personally seen a polar bear using tools to hunt walruses; however, he has heard stories.
“I’ve seen polar bears since I was probably seven years old. I’ve been around them, I’ve hunted alongside them, and I have seen their behaviours. The smartest hunters are usually the female bears,” he stated, observing that some polar bears will trick seals into coming closer to them by pretending to be asleep.
“I have worked with the Inuit on traditional knowledge for a very long time and one of my favourite subjects is polar bears because science often suggests one thing and the Inuit say another thing.”
Stirling claims scientists do not know whether the bears understand intrinsically how to use hunting tools as GoGo did, or they teach the skill to each other, like dolphins using seashells to catch fish, or cockatoos opening garbage bins.
“It seems most likely to me that adult polar bears that pick it up are figuring it out by themselves independently,” he noted.
“That said, if it’s figured out by a female bear and she’s accompanied by her cubs, and the cubs see what she’s doing, they’re very likely to remember it and will try to apply it in the right circumstance in time.”