The Independent UK  [Printer-friendly version]
December 21, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Global warming is scrambling nature, with
effects felt far and wide.]

By Genevieve Roberts

Bears have stopped hibernating in the mountains of northern Spain,
scientists revealed yesterday, in what may be one of the strongest
signals yet of how much climate change is affecting the natural world.

In a December in which bumblebees, butterflies and even swallows have
been on the wing in Britain, European brown bears have been lumbering
through the forests of Spain's Cantabrian mountains, when normally
they would already be in their long, annual sleep.

Bears are supposed to slumber throughout the winter, slowing their
body rhythms to a minimum and drawing on stored resources, because
frozen weather makes food too scarce to find. The barely breathing
creatures can lose up to 40 per cent of their body weight before
warmer springtime weather rouses them back to life.

But many of the 130 bears in Spain's northern cordillera -- which have
a slightly different genetic identity from bear populations elsewhere
in the world -- have remained active throughout recent winters,
naturalists from Spain's Brown Bear Foundation (La Fundacion Oso Pardo
- FOP) said yesterday.

The change is affecting female bears with young cubs, which now find
there are enough nuts, acorns, chestnuts and berries on the bleak
mountainsides to make winter food-gathering sorties "energetically
worthwhile", scientists at the foundation, based in Santander, the
Cantabrian capital, told El Pais newspaper.

"If the winter is mild, the female bears find it is energetically
worthwhile to make the effort to stay awake and hunt for food," said
Guillermo Palomero, the FOP's president and the coordinator of a
national plan for bear conservation. This changed behaviour, he said,
was probably a result of milder winters. "The high Cantabrian peaks
freeze all winter, but our teams of observers have been able to follow
the perfect outlines of tracks from a group of bears," he said.

The FOP is financed by Spain's Environment Ministry and the autonomous
regions of Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia and Castilla-Leon, where the
bears roam in search of mates. Indications of winter bear activity
have been detected for some time, but only in the past three years
have such signs been observed "with absolute certainty", according to
the scientists.

"Mother bears with cubs make the effort to seek out nuts and berries
if these have been plentiful, and snow is scarce," Mr Palomero said,
adding that even for those bears -- mostly mature males -- who do
close down for the winter, "their hibernation period gets shorter
every year".

The behaviour change suggests that global warming is responsible for
this revolution in ursine behaviour, says Juan Carlos Garcia Cordon, a
professor of geography at Santander's Cantabria University, and a
climatology specialist.

"Meteorological data in the high mountains is scarce, but it seems
that the warming is more noticeable in the valleys where cold air
accumulates," Dr Garcia Cordon said. "There is a decline in snowfall,
and in the time snow remains on the ground, which makes access to food
easier. As autumn comes later, and spring comes earlier, bears have an
extra month to forage for food.

"We cannot prove that non-hibernation is caused by global warming, but
everything points in that direction."

Spanish meteorologists predict that this year is likely to be the
warmest year on record in Spain, just as it is likely to be the
warmest year recorded in Britain (where temperature records go back to
1659). Globally, 2006 is likely to be the sixth warmest year in a
record going back the mid-19th century.

Mark Wright, the science adviser to the World Wide Fund for Nature
(WWF) in the UK, said that bears giving up hibernation was "what we
would expect" with climate change.

"It does not in itself prove global warming, but it is certainly
consistent with predictions of it," he said. "What is particularly
interesting about this is that hitherto the warming has seemed to be
happening fastest at the poles and at high latitudes, and now we're
getting examples of it happening further south, and heading towards
the equator.

"I think it's an indication of what's to come. It shows climate change
is not a natural phenomenon but something that is affecting not only
on the weather, but impacting on the natural world in ways we're only
now beginning to understand."

The European brown bear, with its characteristic pelt that ranges from
dark brown through shades of grey to pale gold, has black paws and a
tawny face. It has poor vision, although it sees in colour and at
night, and if threatened rears on its hind legs to get a better view.
It can live for up to 30 years. It has acute hearing, and an
especially fine sense of smell that enables it to detect food from a
long distance. It is carnivorous, but has a multifunctional dental
system with powerful canines and grinding molars perfectly adapted to
an omnivorous diet.

The animals would normally begin hibernation between October and
December, and resume activity between March and May.

The Cantabrian version of the brown bear, a protected species, was
once as endangered as the Iberian lynx or the imperial eagle still are
in Spain, but is now recovering in numbers. Between 70 and 90 bears
roamed Spain's northern mountains in the early 1990s; now 130 live

Other Seasonal Freaks

The osprey found in the lochs and glens of the Scottish Highlands in
the summer months, usually migrate to west Africa to avoid the freeze.
This winter, osprey have been spotted in Suffolk and Devon. Swallows,
which also normally migrate to Africa for the winter have been also
seen across England this winter.

The red admiral butterfly, below, which hibernates in winter, has been
spotted in gardens this month, as has the common darter dragonfly,
usually seen between mid-June and October, which has been seen in
Cheshire, Norfolk and Hampshire.

The smew, a diving duck, flies west to the UK for winter from Russia
and Scandinavia. This year, though, they have been mainly absent from
the lakes and reservoirs between The Wash and the Severn.

Evergreen ivy and ox-eye daisies are still blooming and some oak
trees, which are usually bare by November, were still in leaf on
Christmas Day last year.

The buff-tailed bumblebee is usually first seen in spring. Worker bees
die out by the first frost, while fertilised queen bees survive
underground between March and September. This December, bees have been
seen in Nottingham and York.

Primroses and daffodils are already flowering at the National Botanic
Garden of Wales, in Carmarthenshire. 'Early Sensation' daffodils
usually flower from January until February. Horticulturalists put it
down to the warm weather.

Scientists in the Netherlands reported more than 240 wild plants
flowering in the first 15 days of December, along with more than 200
cultivated species. Examples included cow parsley and sweet violets.
Just two per cent of these plants normally flower in winter, while 27
per cent end their main flowering period in autumn and 56 per cent
before October.