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High winds and melting sea ice trigger landward movement in a polar bear population of concern

February 10, 2023

Some animal species are responding to climate change by altering the timing of events like mating and migration. Such behavioral plasticity can be adaptive, but it is not always. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) from the southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation have mostly remained on ice year-round, but as the climate warms and summer sea ice declines, a growing proportion of the subpopulation is summering ashore. The triggers of this novel behavior are not well understood. Our study uses a parametric time-to-event model to test whether biological and/or time-varying environmental variables thought to influence polar bear movement and habitat selection also drive decisions to swim ashore. We quantified the time polar bears spent occupying offshore sea ice of varying ice concentrations. We evaluated variations in the ordinal date bears moved to land with respect to local environmental conditions such as sea ice concentration and wind across 10 years (2005–2015). Results from our study suggest that storm events (i.e., sustained high wind speeds) may force polar bears from severely degraded ice habitat and catalyze seasonal movements to land. Unlike polar bears long adapted to complete summer ice melt, southern Beaufort Sea bears that summer ashore appear more tolerant of poor-quality sea ice habitat and are less willing to abandon it. Our findings provide a window into emergent, climatically mediated behavior in an Arctic marine mammal vulnerable to rapid habitat decline.

Publication Year 2023
Title High winds and melting sea ice trigger landward movement in a polar bear population of concern
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.4420
Authors Annie Kellner, Todd C. Atwood, David C. Douglas, Stewart Breck, George Wittemyer
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70240715
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB