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Spring fasting behavior in a marine apex predator provides an index of ecosystem productivity

November 22, 2017

The effects of declining Arctic sea ice on local ecosystem productivity are not well understood but have been shown to vary inter-specifically, spatially, and temporally. Because marine mammals occupy upper trophic levels in Arctic food webs, they may be useful indicators for understanding variation in ecosystem productivity. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are apex predators that primarily consume benthic and pelagic-feeding ice-associated seals. As such, their productivity integrates sea ice conditions and the ecosystem supporting them. Declining sea ice availability has been linked to negative population effects for polar bears but does not fully explain observed population changes. We examined relationships between spring foraging success of polar bears and sea ice conditions, prey productivity, and general patterns of ecosystem productivity in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas (CSs). Fasting status (≥7 days) was estimated using serum urea and creatinine levels of 1,448 samples collected from 1,177 adult and subadult bears across three subpopulations. Fasting increased in the Beaufort Sea between 1983–1999 and 2000–2016 and was related to an index of ringed seal body condition. This change was concurrent with declines in body condition of polar bears and observed changes in the diet, condition and/or reproduction of four other vertebrate consumers within the food chain. In contrast, fasting declined in CS polar bears between periods and was less common than in the two Beaufort Sea subpopulations consistent with studies demonstrating higher primary productivity and maintenance or improved body condition in polar bears, ringed seals, and bearded seals despite recent sea ice loss in this region. Consistency between regional and temporal variation in spring polar bear fasting and food web productivity suggests that polar bears may be a useful indicator species. Furthermore, our results suggest that spatial and temporal ecological variation is important in affecting upper trophic-level productivity in these marine ecosystems.

Publication Year 2018
Title Spring fasting behavior in a marine apex predator provides an index of ecosystem productivity
DOI 10.1111/gcb.13933
Authors Karyn D. Rode, Ryan H. Wilson, David C. Douglas, Vanessa L Muhlenbruch, Todd C. Atwood, Eric V. Regehr, Evan Richardson, Nicholas Pilfold, Andrew E. Derocher, George M. Durner, Ian Stirling, Steven C. Amstrup, Michelle St. Martin, Anthony M. Pagano, Kristin S. Simac
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Global Change Biology
Index ID 70194314
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB