Wildlife photographer Kerstin Langenberger snapped the following now-viral picture in August —
— and posted it to her Facebook page with an impassioned plea for, you guessed it, action on climate change.
It’s a saddening photo, to be sure. But Elizabeth Newbern, of Live Science, consulted some actual experts:
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.
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.”
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.”
Armstrup does suggest that polar bears are starving at higher rates because of climate change, but “you can’t say that any one individual is starving because of climate change.”
So, conclusion: In nature, sometimes there are skinny bears.
Who’da thunk it?