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Decoding the Polar Bear Paradox

Decoding the Polar Bear Paradox

Home Little is known about the unusual metabolic and morphological adaptations
polar bears have evolved to cope with some of the most extreme fasts of any
Sci-Tech mammal. Douglas Page profiles two scientists who endure extremes of their
own while providing some surprising answers about the world’s largest land
by Douglas Page,© 1999

Marriage Peril The screaming Bell 206B Jet Ranger begins its pounding descent out of the
High Arctic sky, closing on the lumbering polar bear from behind and to the
Bio left.

"100 m...50 m...10 m," the pilot shouts, while the shooter steadies the
rifle in a special window in the helicopter’s right side door. The target
is a 100 cm2 region in the bear’s neck and upper shoulder. Expert pilots
and marksmen are required. At approximately 3 m over the stampeding bear’s
left shoulder a dart containing a tranquilizer drug called Telazol is

It takes about 5 minutes for the bear (Ursus maritimus) to drop, during
which time the pilot maintains control over the bear’s movements, remaining
close enough to herd the dazed beast away from open water or unsafe Arctic
terrain but far enough away to minimize stress on the animal. The more
stressed the bear becomes, the more resistant it is to the anesthetic. Once
the bear collapses the researchers begin their sampling and tagging

For polar bears, alien abduction is no tabloid fantasy.

The Bear Facts

Male polar bears, 2.5 to 3 m in length, can weigh over 650 kg. Females,
normally shorter and weighing less than a third of that, are no less
ferocious. Some have been seen to rear up and leap at helicopters carrying

"Unmarked bears are marked with ear tags and lip tattoos for
identification," says University of Saskatchewan vertebrate ecologist
Malcolm Ramsay, who has conducted about 40 4-6 week Arctic field seasons in
20 years. "A vestigial first premolar tooth is extracted for age
determination." As polar bears age, each year a thin layer of cementum is
added to the outside of each tooth. Age can be estimated by examining a
slice of tooth and counting the layers. Polar bears have been known to live
20 to 30 years in the wild, but most live only 15 to 18 years.

Body mass is determined by weighing the bears with an electronic load cell.
Other procedures vary depending on the objectives for each field season,
and have included the attachment of radio telemetry to monitor the
condition and range of individuals; intravenous administration of deuterium
(2H2O) to calculate lean body and fat mass of each individual; expired air
collection to determine respiratory exchange ratio; serial collection of (1 of 7)6/7/2009 9:48:35 PM

Decoding the Polar Bear Paradox

blood, serum, and plasma to trace administered labels, to determine

hematological and biochemical differences between seasons and sexes;
intravenous glucose tolerance testing to determine differences in insulin
and glucagon responses between feeding and fasting bears; and collection of
milk samples and adipose tissue biopsies for determination of lipid soluble

The procedures last 2 to 3 hours, or until the bear begins to stir, at

which point the researchers collect their gear, ensure the bear is safe,
then begin the search for the next bear. In the past five years Ramsay and
his graduate students have captured and sampled more than 700 individual
free-ranging polar bears in the Arctic wilderness on Cornwallis Island near
Resolute, Nunavut (formerly part of the Northwest Territories), 300 miles
from the North Magnetic Pole.

Pervasive Peril

For those working in such harsh, isolated conditions, peril is as pervasive

as the cold.

"There are numerous safety issues that concern helicopters, firearms, the
anesthesia of large carnivores, and life in a remote field camp," says
Ramsay colleague, comparative physiology and biochemist Mark Cattet, also
of the University of Saskatchewan. "Specifically, on the topic of
anesthetizing polar bears, there have been some close calls in past years.
Nevertheless, they are rare and usually result from carelessness on our
part, and not as a consequence of the nature of polar bears."

The greatest danger the researchers face is having a catastrophic

helicopter accident, says Ramsay. "The weather in the Arctic can change
quickly and we can suddenly find ourselves in blowing snow with zero

With ambient temperatures well below zero and the nearest help hundreds of
kilometers away, the researchers are then as alone as it’s possible to be
on earth.

"The worst situations we’ve found ourselves in is being grounded in some

remote location by terrible weather or because of a mechanical failure in
the helicopter," says Ramsay. "The longest we’ve ever been stranded,
however, is overnight."

The crews carry gear to survive the hopeless cold, but nothing to warm the
wandering mind left stranded in uncertainty on the tundra. This is the same
chilblain wilderness where John Franklin’s third voyage to find a Northwest
Passage disappeared in 1845. The entire expedition of 129 men was never
heard from again.

The scientists use GPS navigation now, but before that they often had only
a crude idea of where they were, which made locating critical supplies like
fuel caches problematic.

The bears themselves are, of course, dangerous and all researchers carry
handguns and rifles for protection. The forepaws of a polar bear, measure
up to 30 cm in diameter. "Contrary to public perceptions, however, polar
bears are not greatly aggressive and we have never been in a serious
altercation with a bear," Ramsay says. (2 of 7)6/7/2009 9:48:35 PM

Decoding the Polar Bear Paradox

There are suggestions the bears, however, may suffer long-term consequences
from their encounters with researchers. According to Polar Bears Alive, a
non-profit, international organization dedicated to the worldwide
protection of the polar bear, studies have shown that darted and tagged
female bears consistently produce smaller litters and lighter cubs. If
tagged in the den area, pregnant females may abandon the site.

Fast and Loose

Ramsay chose to work in the Arctic because the ecosystems seemed relatively
simple. "If one is interested in predator-prey relationships - one predator
(polar bears), one prey (ringed seals primarily), what could be simpler?"
he asks rhetorically. "Unfortunately, after almost 20 years of study I feel
I know less about polar bears than I thought I knew when I began."

Ramsay is currently studying the long-term physiological and ecological

effects of intermittent feeding patterns on vertebrates, primarily polar
bears, and to a lesser degree the narwhal (Monodon monoceros) and bluntnose
sixgill sharks (Hexanchus grisus). Polar bears go without food for up to
eight months, yet remain active, give birth, and nurse young while fasting,
making them excellent models for Ramsay’s research.

Polar bears, feeding predominantly on seals, reside not only at the top of
the world but at the top of the Arctic food chain. Alone among bears, the
polar bear is considered a marine mammal.

"Late spring and early summer is their peak feeding period," says Ramsay.
"When food is abundant they preferentially consume the blubber. The body
mass of individual polar bears can more than triple over this period of
hyperphagia on a high fat diet and their bodies may consist of more than 50
percent adipose tissue (vesicular cells filled with fat)." The bear's
blubber layer can measure 11.4 cm thick.

For most of the remaining year polar bears appear to feed little. At the
end of a fast, adipose tissue depots may be reduced to less than 10 percent
of body mass. Gestation and early lactation, the most energy-costly periods
of the mammalian reproductive cycle, are undertaken by polar bears entirely
while fasting. At parturition, a female polar bear will have been without
food and water for several months and will continue to fast for many weeks
more while the cubs nurse.

"Our working assumption was that although the underlying metabolic

adaptations of polar bears to fasting were unknown, it seemed logical to
assume that they would be similar to the closely related and more
intensively studied black bear," he says. Instead, he found profound
differences in the metabolism of fasting between these species. Ramsay now
hypothesizes that polar bears maintain themselves throughout the year on a
lipid (fat)-based economy. When feeding, the fat comes from seals. When
fasting, it comes from endogenous stores. In contrast, most mammal diets
are high in carbohydrates or proteins.

"In most vertebrates there is a switch in energy substrates between the

feeding (carbohydrate-based) and fasting (lipid-based) states," he says.

The Toxic Arctic

Because they feed almost exclusively on marine mammals, polar bears are
exposed to relatively high levels of bioaccumulating environmental (3 of 7)6/7/2009 9:48:35 PM

Decoding the Polar Bear Paradox

contaminants. Researchers have found mean levels of polychlorinated

biphenyls (PCBs) recorded in the adipose tissue of polar bears similar to
the threshold level of PCB concentration in the blubber of seals at which
deleterious reproductive effects are evident.

Because polar bear cubs are nourished for many weeks on fat-rich milk
derived from their mothers’ adipose stores, their diet is consequently high
in organochlorine contaminants.

The unique annual dietary regimen of polar bears coupled with their high
trophic status offered Ramsay a change to investigate the kinetics of
organochlorine contaminants under long-term fasting.

The most significant findings from this longitudinal toxicological sampling

of free-ranging carnivores include the first characterization of cytochrome
P450 (an enzyme that gives an organism the ability to metabolize foreign
chemicals) in polar bears; the first determinations of the body burdens of
several PCBs in polar bears before and after a lengthy fast; and the first
determination of the transfer rates of these contaminants from mother polar
bears to her cubs.

Metabolic Derangements

In a separate but related study in the same barren reaches of the Arctic,
Mark Cattet is also trying to understand polar bear physiology and
biochemistry. If human diabetes is ever understood and cured we may have
scientists like Cattet and Ramsay to thank.

In humans, excessive consumption of dietary fat, obesity, and prolonged

fasting are well known risk factors for diseases such as coronary heart
disease, type II diabetes mellitus and anorexia nervosa. Interestingly,
these dietary extremes are not only consistent with normal health in polar
bears, their survival may mandate them. Therefore, the question Cattet is
trying to address is, how do polar bears maintain normal health in the face
of a dietary lifestyle characterized by high-fat consumption, obesity, and
prolonged fasting?

Three steps are required to address this question, he says. First,

determine the physiological and biochemical response of polar bears to
variation in food availability (from feed to fast) and to variation in body
condition (the availability of body fat and muscle stores).

Second, identify the points of departure in the physiological and

biochemical response of humans and polar bears. In other words, where
exactly do these two species differ in their responses to food availability
and body condition?

Third, determine what mechanisms are responsible for regulating the

physiological and biochemical response of polar bears.

"Our supposition is that many of the differences between polar bears and
humans will prove to be quantitative (similar mechanisms, but different
degrees of expression), rather than qualitative (entirely different
mechanisms) in nature," Cattet says. "We believe that concentrating our
research efforts on the points of departure between these species may
ultimately provide new insight into both the energy metabolism of polar
bears and the pathogenesis and treatment of human coronary heart disease
and type II diabetes mellitus." (4 of 7)6/7/2009 9:48:35 PM

Decoding the Polar Bear Paradox

So far, many of the results have been surprising.

"There are numerous features in the physiology and biochemistry of polar

bears that, when viewed in isolation and from a human health perspective,
are suggestive of significant metabolic derangements," Cattet says.
"Nevertheless, we find no evidence of metabolic disease in polar bears.
Instead, these features appear to represent components of a tightly
regulated energy metabolism that is sensitive both to the availability of
food and the availability of body energy stores."

For instance, polar bears accumulate glycogen (a storage form of glucose)

in their livers while fasting for many months. In contrast, humans deplete
their liver glycogen within 1-2 days of fasting.

Another surprise was finding that the blood plasma concentration of ketone
bodies (liver exports that build up in human blood because of starvation or
uncontrolled diabetes) remains at barely detectable levels in polar bears
even after months of fasting. In humans, by contrast, ketone bodies are a
very important fuel source and, as a consequence, the blood plasma
concentration of these compounds increases dramatically during fasting and
reaches pathological levels (ketoacidosis) in uncontrolled diabetes.

"Our results, however, appear to indicate that ketone bodies are not an
important fuel source to polar bears, whether fasting or feeding," Cattet

The biggest surprise, however, was the finding that polar bears develop
significant resistance to the effects of insulin as their body fat stores
increase and they become obese.

In human adipose tissue and skeletal muscle, insulin increases glucose

uptake. Insulin resistance occurs when, for an average level of insulin in
healthy patient, these tissue and muscle do not react normally. It is more
difficult for glucose to enter the cells and, to compensate for this
defect, more insulin is produced. It forces the glucose into the muscle and
adipose tissue. As a result, the insulin resistant patient shows both
hyperinsulinaemia, due to pancreas overproduction, and hyperglycaemia,
caused by the low glucose uptake in tissues. As long as the pancreas is
able to produce enough insulin, blood glucose levels are under control and
insulin resistance is balanced. Otherwise, glycemia increases and type II
diabetes, a disease characterized by abnormally high sugar levels in the
blood, may appear.

Cattet administered glucose by intravenous injection to anesthetized polar

bears. Serial blood samples were then collected over a two-and-a-half hour
period following the glucose injection. By measuring the concentrations of
glucose, insulin, and glucagon in the blood plasma, Cattet was able to
determine the response of the pancreas to a glucose challenge and the
effectiveness of insulin in returning the blood glucose concentration back
to baseline values.

"We found that the plasma insulin concentration in obese polar bears
increased approximately eight-fold in response to a glucose injection,
whereas the increase in the plasma insulin concentration of leaner polar
bears was approximately three-fold," Cattet says. "Yet, despite a markedly
greater plasma insulin response in obese bears, the plasma glucose
concentration returned to normal levels sooner in the lean polar bears (60-
90 minutes versus 120-150 minutes in obese bears). Thus, obese polar bears (5 of 7)6/7/2009 9:48:35 PM

Decoding the Polar Bear Paradox

can be described as having a significant degree of insulin resistance or

the inability of body tissues to respond to insulin."

In humans, obesity is also associated with insulin resistance, but often

progresses to diabetes. The complications of untreated diabetes include the
progressive destruction of the circulatory and nervous systems, the eyes,
and the kidneys. Diabetes is the fourth leading cause of death by disease
in the United States. Worldwide, 130 million cases were reported in 1997
and 300 million cases are predicted by the year 2025.

"In polar bears, we see no evidence of diabetes," Cattet says. "Instead we

see insulin resistance as being a tightly regulated process that is highly
sensitive to body condition. It’s present when obese, but disappears when
lean. If we can determine how polar bears are able to accomplish this, then
perhaps we can determine why insulin resistance progresses to a disease
state in humans."


Polar bears range throughout the Arctic, clawing across the ice cap from
Russia to Alaska, Canada to Greenland, and on to Norway's Svalbard
archipelago. Scientists estimate the world’s polar bear population
somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000.

Scientists attempting to understand polar bears face an exhausting

challenge. Not only are the bears difficult to locate in the vast, bleak
Arctic, once they’re found the researchers must contend with the world’s
largest land carnivore and some of the world's worst weather.

Vertebrate ecologist Malcolm Ramsay’s polar bear work on Cornwallis Island,

Nunavut, has been to develop innovative methods to determine basic life-
history parameters. In the past four years his research has produced
several ‘firsts’, including:

o the discovery that the metabolic responses of polar bears to fasting are
in stark contrast to black bears (U. americanus) and, perhaps, all other

o the first-ever determinations of milk yield and transfer rates in polar

bears and the growth dynamics of cubs;

o the fat content (hence energetic value) of polar bear milk was found to
be sensitive to maternal body fat stores;

o mothers in poorer condition produce milk of significantly lower

nutritional value;

o the determination of body composition in free-ranging bears showing when

polar bears fast, lipids from adipose tissue depots meet the majority of
metabolic energy requirements. Body protein is catabolized during long
fasts, albeit at a significantly lower rate than most terrestrial mammals,
and the efficiency of protein sparing is inversely proportional to relative
fatness at the start of the fast;

o body fat was found to be critically important for reproductive success.

Offspring weight at emergence from the overwinter den was strongly
correlated with the size of maternal fat stores immediately prior to
entering the den; (6 of 7)6/7/2009 9:48:35 PM

Decoding the Polar Bear Paradox

o and the determination that growth in early life influences adult body
size of females, but not males. "This finding, while robust, was unexpected
and likely has profound implications for maternal investment strategies in
the species and for the dynamics of their mating system," Ramsay says.

-end end-

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