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Development of on-shore behavior among polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in the southern Beaufort Sea: Inherited or learned?

July 13, 2018

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are experiencing rapid and substantial changes to their environment due to global climate change. Polar bears of the southern Beaufort Sea (SB) have historically spent most of the year on the sea ice. However, recent reports from Alaska indicate that the proportion of the SB subpopulation observed on-shore during late summer and early fall has increased. Our objective was to investigate whether this on-shore behavior has developed through genetic inheritance, asocial learning, or through social learning. From 2010 to 2013, genetic data were collected from SB polar bears in the fall via hair snags and remote biopsy darting on-shore and in the spring from captures and remote biopsy darting on the sea ice. Bears were categorized as either on-shore or off-shore individuals based on their presence on-shore during the fall. Levels of genetic relatedness, first-order relatives, mother–offspring pairs, and father–offspring pairs were determined and compared within and between the two categories: on-shore versus off-shore. Results suggested transmission of on-shore behavior through either genetic inheritance or social learning as there was a higher than expected number of first-order relatives exhibiting on-shore behavior. Genetic relatedness and parentage data analyses were in concurrence with this finding, but further revealed mother–offspring social learning as the primary mechanism responsible for the development of on-shore behavior. Recognizing that on-shore behavior among polar bears was predominantly transmitted via social learning from mothers to their offspring has implications for future management and conservation as sea ice continues to decline.

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