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Energetic and health effects of protein overconsumption constrain dietary adaptation in an apex predator

July 28, 2021

Studies of predator feeding ecology commonly focus on energy intake. However, captive predators have been documented to selectively feed to optimize macronutrient intake. As many apex predators experience environmental changes that affect prey availability, limitations on selective feeding can affect energetics and health. We estimated the protein:fat ratio of diets consumed by wild polar bears using a novel isotope-based approach, measured protein:fat ratios selected by zoo polar bears offered dietary choice and examined potential energetic and health consequences of overconsuming protein. Dietary protein levels selected by wild and zoo polar bears were low and similar to selection observed in omnivorous brown bears, which reduced energy intake requirements by 70% compared with lean meat diets. Higher-protein diets fed to zoo polar bears during normal care were concurrent with high rates of mortality from kidney disease and liver cancer. Our results suggest that polar bears have low protein requirements and that limitations on selective consumption of marine mammal blubber consequent to climate change could meaningfully increase their energetic costs. Although bear protein requirements appear lower than those of other carnivores, the energetic and health consequences of protein overconsumption identified in this study have the potential to affect a wide range of taxa.