Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Identifying reliable indicators of fitness in polar bears

August 19, 2020

Animal structural body size and condition are often measured to evaluate individual health, identify responses to environmental change and food availability, and relate food availability to effects on reproduction and survival. A variety of condition metrics have been developed but relationships between these metrics and vital rates are rarely validated. Identifying an optimal approach to estimate the body condition of polar bears is needed to improve monitoring of their response to decline in sea ice habitat. Therefore, we examined relationships between several commonly used condition indices (CI), body mass, and size with female reproductive success and cub survival among polar bears (Ursus maritimus) measured in two subpopulations over three decades. To improve measurement and application of morphometrics and CIs, we also examined whether CIs are independent of age and structural size–an important assumption for monitoring temporal trends—and factors affecting measurement precision and accuracy. Maternal CIs and mass measured the fall prior to denning were related to cub production. Similarly, maternal CIs, mass, and length were related to the mass of cubs or yearlings that accompanied her. However, maternal body mass, but not CIs, measured in the spring was related to cub production and only maternal mass and length were related to the probability of cub survival. These results suggest that CIs may not be better indicators of fitness than body mass in part because CIs remove variation associated with body size that is important in affecting fitness. Further, CIs exhibited variable relationships with age for growing bears and were lower for longer bears despite body length being related to cub survival and female reproductive success. These results are consistent with findings from other species indicating that body mass is a useful metric to link environmental conditions and population dynamics.

Publication Year 2020
Title Identifying reliable indicators of fitness in polar bears
DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0237444
Authors Karyn D. Rode, Todd C. Atwood, Gregory Thiemann, Michelle St. Martin, Ryan H. Wilson, George M. Durner, Eric V. Regehr, Sandra L. Talbot, Kevin Sage, Anthony M. Pagano, Kristin S. Simac
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title PLoS ONE
Index ID 70212807
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB; Alaska Science Center Biology WTEB