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Diet composition and body condition of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to sea ice habitat in the Canadian High Arctic

June 11, 2021

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) rely on sea ice for hunting marine mammal prey. Declining sea ice conditions associated with climate warming have negatively affected polar bears, especially in the southern portion of their range. At higher latitudes, the transition from multi-year ice to thinner annual ice has been hypothesized to increase biological productivity and potentially improve polar bear foraging conditions. To investigate this possibility, we used quantitative fatty acid signature analysis to characterize the diet composition of 148 polar bears in two high-latitude subpopulations from 2012 to 2014: (1) Viscount Melville Sound, where little is known about marine mammal ecology, and (2) Northern Beaufort Sea, a subpopulation considered stable with comparatively more ecological data. We used adipose tissue lipid content as an index of body condition. To characterize long-term habitat conditions, we examined trends in sea ice metrics from 1979 to 2014 in both regions. Although the diets of bears in both subpopulations were dominated by ringed seal (Pusa hispida, mean biomass consumption = 45%), bears in Viscount Melville Sound showed higher proportional consumption of beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas; mean biomass consumption = 37%) than any other polar bear subpopulation studied to date. Although the three-year duration of our study precludes long-term insights, relatively lighter sea ice conditions in Viscount Melville Sound were associated with reduced consumption of preferred prey (i.e., ringed seal), especially among female polar bears. Further, polar bears in Viscount Melville sound were in poorer body condition than those in the Northern Beaufort Sea. Our results do not indicate that declining sea ice has had any positive effect on polar bear foraging at high-latitudes.

Publication Year 2021
Title Diet composition and body condition of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to sea ice habitat in the Canadian High Arctic
DOI 10.1007/s00300-021-02891-8
Authors Katie R. N. Florko, Gregory W. Thiemann, Jeffrey F. Bromaghin, Evan S. Richardson
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Polar Biology
Index ID 70221411
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB