Why does the (polar) bear have a short tail?

A charming Native American fable explains that the bear lost his tail because the wily fox conned him into ice-fishing with it; the bear's tail then came off when he tried to pull it out after it froze in the ice. According to the tale (no pun intended), this also explains why bears and foxes don't get along to this day. Presumably bear and fox, like conservatives and liberals (as mentioned here last week) would also argue about climate change and the paleoclimatic glacial conditions of the polar ice caps.The basic argument here is whether the polar bear's future might be in danger, given the loss of its habitat due to increasing polar ice cap melt from anthropogenic climate change (ACC), otherwise known as global warming. It actually breaks down into several sub-arguments, the first of which is the threat of extinction. Now "extinction" is a scary word, and because polar bears are mammals, and therefore by extension a part of the happy family of which we humans are also members, the thought of losing our cuddly polar bear cousins is a bit frightening. So the polar bear has to a degree become the poster child for the threat of species extinction. Some estimates in fact suggest that the polar bear could be extinct as soon as 2050. How real is the threat of polar bear extinction? For an objective perspective, let's look at the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) was established in 1948 as the world's first global environmental organization. It now consists of 1,200 member organizations, both government and non-government, with contributions from some 11,000 volunteer scientists in 160 countries. According to the IUCN Species Survival Commission Polar Bear Specialist Group (for you acronym lovers, that would be the IUCN/SSC PBSG), "ursus maritimis" is listed on the IUCN Red List as "Vulnerable," ranking one level better than "Endangered," and two better than "Critically endangered." For some years the global polar bear population has been estimated in the range of 20,000-25,000. One commentator on the climate skeptic blog "Watts Up With That?" points at the lack of documented population decline as if to suggest that the fear of extinction is unfounded. Liberal voices are still employing the word "could" when speaking of polar bear extinction, using the same data as conservatives. And both sides point to the 2011 documentation of an epic 426-mile swim by a polar bear and its yearling cub seeking ice floes as implications or non-implications favoring their respective positions. Further polar-izing (again, no pun intended) the argument is the fact that "polar bears were the first species added to the endangered and threatened species list solely because of threats from global warming," according to the Center for Biological Diversity. So the jury's still out on the threat of extinction. But what about the loss of habitat from polar ice melt? And how big a deal is extinction anyway? More on those topics next time.

********** Published: August 16, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 18