David Attenborough was my favorite wildlife cinematographer and each year I fed my students numerous clips to make biology and ecology come alive. Researching the plight of the polar bears, I began to worry that “my hero” had decided to use his spectacular wildlife videos to promote catastrophic climate change.
The first example that raised my suspicions was his portrayal of polar bears feeding on walruses, with a narration suggesting it was a new behavior desperately driven by climate change. But for us ecologists who know better: shame on you David Attenborough. He ignored documented wildlife history, and cherry-picked a dramatic scene to promote climate fear.
First view this older BBC video pitting polar bears against walrus. Notice how many bears are converging on the walrus herd and that they are coming from the land. Then view Attenborough’s “new and improved video” that puts a very misleading slant on polar bears and walruses.
If you want to read historical facts about walruses and polar bears, I suggest reading Francis H. Fay’s 1982 “Ecology And Biology Of The Pacific Walrus, Odobenus rosmarus, Divergens Illiger.” In the 1950s Fay was concerned that the walrus was headed for extinction due to overhunting for ivory and blubber, so Fay set out to document everything there was to know about walruses.
In his tome, Fay published early 1900 observations by Russian researchers who admired the polar bears’ varied and clever tactics for hunting walrus.
“The walruses on Peschan Island are frequently bothered by bears, which creep up to them under cover of uneven terrain and of driftwood, of which there usually is an abundance along the shore. Sometimes the bears dig pits in the sand or make a pile in front of themselves, in order to hide from the walruses. We saw a bear in a pit dug in the driftwood within 50 m of the herd, where it watched for a long time. Suddenly, it leaped from its concealment and plunged along the flat terrain toward the walruses. The animals, upon seeing the running bear, rushed into the water, and when the bear reached those on shore, only a few large males remained, and these gradually pivoted into the water, threatening with roars and swinging tusks. The bear in his misfortune was unable to decide whether or not to enter the water and only brandished his paws helplessly and growled in discontent. Not infrequently, in the confusion, the adult walruses crush some young; possibly, at the time of the attack, the bears hope to profit from such accidentally crushed or abandoned young.”
Anyone familiar with the scientific literature knows polar bears have been hunting walruses since recorded history, and most certainly before that time. More recently researchers reporting to the Polar Bear Specialist Group meeting, speculated that hunting walruses on land was likely to be a behavior that has allowed bears to survive the lack of sea ice that was far more common through out the Holocene Optimum.
For example Wrangel Island is both home of one of the largest known polar bear denning areas in the Arctic, as well as the location of several traditional walrus land haul-outs each summer. Because walruses often get trampled at these haul-outs, bears eagerly supplement their diet by feeding on the trodden carcasses. In addition polar bears will wait at these haul outs anticipating the summer wave of walrus herds that typically come ashore, and then dine on weak or young walruses. Seasoned bears know to avoid a healthy bull.
In 2007 the 2nd greatest decrease in Arctic sea ice was observed in the waters surrounding Wrangel Island. That summer researchers observed the greatest number of polar bears on the island. However contrary to the less ice-means-starving-bear theory, there were no signs of increased nutritional stress. Quite the opposite.
Anticipating the seasonal haul-out of walruses, the bears concentrated along the beaches where they were easily observed by researchers who determined that less than 5% of the Wrangel Island bears were designated skinny or very skinny. That compared very favorably to the 7 to 15% of skinny bears observed in previous years with heavier ice. Furthermore researcher determined that not only did 29% of all bears look “normal”, the remaining 66% were fat or very fat. Those polar bear experts wrote, “Under certain circumstances, such as were observed on Wrangel Island in 2007 (Ovsyanikov and Menyushina 2008, Ovsyanikov et al., 2008), resources available in coastal ecosystems may be so abundant that polar bears are able to feed on them more successfully than while hunting on the sea ice.”
With that scientific background, view Attenborough’s rendition and ask yourself if he is objectively narrating the video. He ignores the bears and walruses’ natural history to suggest polar bears have only recently attacked walruses out of desperation. Attenborough suggests the lone bear had been desperately swimming for days, trying to reach the island. However without a radio-collar on the bear, one must wonder if Attenborough is using creative license. And why is Attenborough “serendipitously “ set up in this location to film this event??? Is it a traditional walrus hunting spot, and not the rare event his video suggests?
Researchers have documented instances of younger bears who have not mastered hunting walrus that resulted in injury, but it a matter of a younger bears evolving experience. Attenborough marries an uncommon hunting failure to climate change. Playing sad music, he suggests that bears only attack walruses as an unnatural last resort, suggesting that in essence it is a climate change driven act that is suicidal and doomed to increase.
To my increasing dismay, my former wildlife hero seems to be plunging more deeply into climate propaganda. Attenborough has a new series on Discovery called Africa but it might as well be called “Let’s Push Climate Fear“.
Take for instance his video segment shown below on Green Turtles. He accurately tells us that unlike humans who determine gender via the X and Y chromosomes, Green Turtles (as well as several other reptiles) determine the next generation’s gender based on the temperature of the developing eggs. Researchers realized this when trying to save endangered sea turtles from depredation and dug up their eggs to “safely” incubate them. Fearing that buried eggs at the bottom of the pile had not benefitted equally from the sun’s warmth, the eggs were laid out evenly on trays so all could incubate at the same temperature. The result was uni-sex baby turtles.
However turtles have been around since the dinosaurs and their temperature-gender system has been completely successful throughout monumental periods of climate change, massive extinctions, and epochs with far warmer temperatures than today. Attenborough should tell his audience that microclimates a far more critical to their success as well as informing the public that temperatures drop off dramatically with depth in the sand. Nonetheless he warns that due to global warming, female turtles will soon have great difficulty finding a male. Shameful propaganda Sir David!
Fay, F. (1982) Ecology and Biology of Odobenus rosmarus the Pacific Walrus, divergens. US. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, North American Fauna, No. 74.
Ovsyanikov N.G., and Menyushina I.E. (2008) Specifics of Polar Bears Surviving an Ice Free Season on Wrangel Island in 2007. Marine Mammals of the Holarctic. Odessa, pp. 407-412.
Segments of this essay are adapted from Jim Steele’s Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism