Inside Nature’s Giants Special exposes plight of polar bear

The BAFTA-award-winning series returns with a feature-length Arctic special in search of the world’s largest land carnivore: the polar bear. The Inside Nature’s Giants team of experts join Inuit hunters and scientists studying these iconic creatures off the coast of Greenland.

Polar bears have become a symbol of climate change as their habitat is threatened. But for local subsistence hunters they are vital source of food and resources, as well as being culturally important.

Braving blizzards, freezing seas and temperatures that can plummet to -70C, the team join an international scientific expedition investigating the plight of polar bears…

“Everyone sees this as such a pristine environment,” says veterinary scientist Mark Evans. “And it is stunning, but underneath the surface it’s not as pristine as it looks.”

Danish scientists Christian Sonne and Professor Rune Dietz from Aarhus University have been monitoring the levels of toxic chemicals found in polar bears for over a decade. Because these creatures are at the top of the food chain they are especially vulnerable to physiological side effects from the man-made pollutants, such as fire retardants from plastics and mercury. There are early signs of changes to their reproductive organs and neurological damage.

“This is the canary in the coal mine,” says Professor Joy Reidenberg. “They’re the top predator so they concentrate anything that’s out there, because it’s eating everything else that’s lower in the food chain that are eating the pollutants.”

The pollutants are coming from discarded products such as mobile phones and computers, which contain chemical flame retardants.

“We replenish our cell phones and computers every 2-3 years,” says environmental toxicologist Dr Nil Basu.
“And where do those discarded products go? They get sent to various countries where they’re broken apart and these components – the flame retardants and the metals – get into the environment.”

The scientists need to collect blood and fresh tissue samples and collaborate with local people who are permitted to hunt a small quota of bears. The hunting is strictly controlled, using traditional methods and avoiding mothers with cubs.

The Inside Nature’s Giants experts join the expedition to carry out a more extensive anatomical dissection to explore some of the mysteries of the polar bear, such as how they cope with such a high fat diet of seal blubber without risking heart failure.

Veterinary scientist, Mark Evans, is upset by his first encounter with a freshly-hunted polar bear. Comparative anatomist, Professor Joy Reidenberg, is astonished by the thickness of the polar bear’s fur and even more surprised to discover that while its skin is black and its fur translucent, the polar bear still appears white.

And, out on the ice, biologist Simon Watt comes face to face with a foot-long walrus penis bone, crawls inside a recently evacuated polar bear den, and traces their remarkable evolutionary story.
Polar bears evolved from grizzly bears in the last 150,000 years. But as their habitat melts and their food becomes increasingly contaminated, the polar bears’ future looks increasingly precarious.
Can they adapt fast enough to survive this rapidly changing world?

© Courtesy of Channel 4

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.