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Starving Polar Bear Photo: Don’t Blame Just Climate Change

Polar bears have become the fuzzy face of the impacts of climate change, with shrinking sea ice in the Arctic affecting how the bears normally roam and hunt. Now, after a photograph of an emaciated polar bear hobbling on ice went viral online, some people are wondering if global warming is causing these majestic creatures to starve.

Wildlife photographer Kerstin Langenberger snapped the now-famous photo of the gaunt polar bear and wrote a concerned Facebook post questioning the health of polar bear populations. Though it was widely circulated online, the photograph is misleading, said Karyn Rode, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska.

"I think you are always going to have animals in any population [that are] in poor conditions," Rode said. This can be because they have an injury (as may be the case with the polar bear in the photo) or because the animal is old and has lost some of its canines, she said. [In Images: Polar Bears' Shifting Diet]

Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying polar bears, agreed and added that seeing a skinny bear in the wild is not altogether uncommon. "We know that animals in the wild don't live forever," he said. "Polar bears, they don't have natural enemies, so when they die it's of starvation."

Related: Are Polar Bears Skating on Thin (Arctic) Ice?

There are 19 recognized polar bear subpopulations, but only two have been studied for long enough to show that changes in ice conditions are affecting the livelihood of some polar bears. Temperatures are rising in many regions of the world because high concentrations of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), are warming up the Earth's atmosphere. The effects are most notable in the colder regions of the world since a large portion of the ice cover comes from frozen ocean water, or sea ice. Sea ice forms at colder temperatures than freshwater ice, so when things warm up, sea ice is the first thing to melt.

Polar Bears Threatened With Extinction Due to Climate Change 1:01

Sea ice is the home of polar bears' major food source, ice seals, so when the sea ice disappears, so does the bears' main way of getting meals. Rising global temperatures are forcing bears to spend more time on land and to go longer between meals. "The climate can only continue to warm as[carbon dioxide] concentrations continue to rise," Amstrup said.

"There is a higher percentage of bears in this situation [starving] now because of sea ice retreat," Amstrup said. "We have documented the populations in Alaska and the western Hudson Bay of Canada. We have shown in both places that we have seen poorer survival rates."

Related: Biggest Threat to Polar Bears? Greenhouse Gases, USGS Says

Also, there are several polar bear populations that aren't very well studied, so it's impossible to say that polar bears are generally struggling because of climate change, Rode said. "There has been no study that I know of that said more bears starve specifically as a result of climate change," she added. "There have been models of that, but there has been no empirical data to support that."

This is a condensed version of a report from Live Science. Read the full report. Follow Elizabeth Newbern @liznewbern. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

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