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Diet energy density estimated from isotopes in predator hair associated with survival, habitat, and population dynamics

September 24, 2022

Sea ice loss is fundamentally altering the Arctic marine environment. Yet there is a paucity of data on the adaptability of food webs to ecosystem change, including predator-prey interactions. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are an important subsistence resource for Indigenous people and an apex predator that relies entirely on the under-ice food web to meet their energy needs. Here, we assessed whether polar bears maintained dietary energy density by prey switching in response to spatial-temporal variation in prey availability. We compared the macronutrient composition of diets inferred from stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes in polar bear guard hair (primarily representing summer/fall diet) during periods when bears had low and high survival 2004-2016, between bears that summered on land versus pack ice, and between bears occupying different regions of the Alaskan and Canadian Beaufort Sea. Polar bears consumed diets with lower energy density during periods of low survival suggesting that concurrent increased dietary proportions of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) did not offset reduced proportions of ringed seals (Pusa hispida). Diets with the lowest energy density and proportions from ringed seal blubber were consumed by bears in the western Beaufort Sea (Alaska) during a period when polar bear abundance declined. Intake required to meet energy requirements of an average free-ranging adult female polar bear was 2.1 kg/day on diets consumed during years with high survival but rose to 3.0 kg/day when survival was low. Although bears that summered onshore in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea had higher fat diets than bears that summered on the pack ice, access to the remains of subsistence-harvested bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) contributed little to improving diet energy density. Because most bears in this region remain with the sea ice year-round, prey-switching and consumption of whale carcasses onshore appear insufficient to augment diets when availability of their primary prey, ringed seals, is reduced. Our results show that a strong predator-prey relationship between polar bears and ringed seals continues in the Beaufort Sea. The method of estimating dietary blubber using predator hair, demonstrated here, provides a new metric to monitor predator-prey relationships that affect individual health and population demographics.

Publication Year 2023
Title Diet energy density estimated from isotopes in predator hair associated with survival, habitat, and population dynamics
DOI 10.1002/eap.2751
Authors Karyn D. Rode, Brian D. Taras, Craig A. Stricker, Todd C. Atwood, Nicole P Boucher, George M. Durner, Andrew E. Derocher, Evan S. Richardson, Seth Cherry, Lori T. Quakenbush, Lara Horstmann, Jeffrey F. Bromaghin
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Applications
Index ID 70237134
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB; Fort Collins Science Center