Increased Land Use by Chukchi Sea Polar Bears in Relation to Changing Sea Ice Conditions.
ABSTRACT: Recent observations suggest that polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are increasingly using land habitats in some parts of their range, where they have minimal access to their preferred prey, likely in response to loss of their sea ice habitat associated with climatic warming. We used location data from female polar bears fit with satellite radio collars to compare land use patterns in the Chukchi Sea between two periods (1986-1995 and 2008-2013) when substantial summer sea-ice loss occurred. In both time periods, polar bears predominantly occupied sea-ice, although land was used during the summer sea-ice retreat and during the winter for maternal denning. However, the proportion of bears on land for > 7 days between August and October increased between the two periods from 20.0% to 38.9%, and the average duration on land increased by 30 days. The majority of bears that used land in the summer and for denning came to Wrangel and Herald Islands (Russia), highlighting the importance of these northernmost land habitats to Chukchi Sea polar bears. Where bears summered and denned, and how long they spent there, was related to the timing and duration of sea ice retreat. Our results are consistent with other studies supporting increased land use as a common response of polar bears to sea-ice loss. Implications of increased land use for Chukchi Sea polar bears are unclear, because a recent study observed no change in body condition or reproductive indices between the two periods considered here. This result suggests that the ecology of this region may provide a degree of resilience to sea ice loss. However, projections of continued sea ice loss suggest that polar bears in the Chukchi Sea and other parts of the Arctic may increasingly use land habitats in the future, which has the potential to increase nutritional stress and human-polar bear interactions.
Project description:Climate change is expected to alter many species' habitat. A species' ability to adjust to these changes is partially determined by their ability to adjust habitat selection preferences to new environmental conditions. Sea ice loss has forced polar bears (Ursus maritimus) to spend longer periods annually over less productive waters, which may be a primary driver of population declines. A negative population response to greater time spent over less productive water implies, however, that prey are not also shifting their space use in response to sea ice loss. We show that polar bear habitat selection in the Chukchi Sea has not changed between periods before and after significant sea ice loss, leading to a 75% reduction of highly selected habitat in summer. Summer was the only period with loss of highly selected habitat, supporting the contention that summer will be a critical period for polar bears as sea ice loss continues. Our results indicate that bears are either unable to shift selection patterns to reflect new prey use patterns or that there has not been a shift towards polar basin waters becoming more productive for prey. Continued sea ice loss is likely to further reduce habitat with population-level consequences for polar bears.
Project description:When reducing activity and using stored energy during seasonal food shortages, animals risk degradation of skeletal muscles, although some species avoid or minimize the resulting atrophy while experiencing these conditions during hibernation. Polar bears may be food deprived and relatively inactive during winter (when pregnant females hibernate and hunting success declines for other demographic groups) as well as summer (when sea ice retreats from key foraging habitats). We investigated muscle atrophy in samples of biceps femoris collected from free-ranging polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea (SBS) throughout their annual cycle. Atrophy was most pronounced in April-May as a result of food deprivation during the previous winter, with muscles exhibiting reduced protein concentration, increased water content, and lower creatine kinase mRNA. These animals increased feeding and activity in spring (when seal prey becomes more available), initiating a period of muscle recovery. During the following ice melt of late summer, ~30% of SBS bears abandon retreating sea ice for land; in August, these 'shore' bears exhibited no muscle atrophy, indicating that they had fully recovered from winter food deprivation. These individuals subsequently scavenged whale carcasses deposited by humans and by October, had retained good muscle condition. In contrast, ~70% of SBS bears follow the ice north in late summer, into deep water with less prey. These 'ice' bears fast; by October, they exhibited muscle protein loss and rapid changes in myosin heavy-chain isoforms in response to reduced activity. These findings indicate that, unlike other bears during winter hibernation, polar bears without food in summer cannot mitigate atrophy. Consequently, prolonged summer fasting resulting from climate change-induced ice loss creates a risk of greater muscle atrophy and reduced abilities to travel and hunt.
Project description:In the Arctic Ocean's southern Beaufort Sea (SB), the length of the sea ice melt season (i.e., period between the onset of sea ice break-up in summer and freeze-up in fall) has increased substantially since the late 1990s. Historically, polar bears (Ursus maritimus) of the SB have mostly remained on the sea ice year-round (except for those that came ashore to den), but recent changes in the extent and phenology of sea ice habitat have coincided with evidence that use of terrestrial habitat is increasing. We characterized the spatial behavior of polar bears spending summer and fall on land along Alaska's north coast to better understand the nexus between rapid environmental change and increased use of terrestrial habitat. We found that the percentage of radiocollared adult females from the SB subpopulation coming ashore has tripled over 15 years. Moreover, we detected trends of earlier arrival on shore, increased length of stay, and later departure back to sea ice, all of which were related to declines in the availability of sea ice habitat over the continental shelf and changes to sea ice phenology. Since the late 1990s, the mean duration of the open-water season in the SB increased by 36 days, and the mean length of stay on shore increased by 31 days. While on shore, the distribution of polar bears was influenced by the availability of scavenge subsidies in the form of subsistence-harvested bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) remains aggregated at sites along the coast. The declining spatio-temporal availability of sea ice habitat and increased availability of human-provisioned resources are likely to result in increased use of land. Increased residency on land is cause for concern given that, while there, bears may be exposed to a greater array of risk factors including those associated with increased human activities.
Project description:Large carnivores are imperiled globally, and characteristics making them vulnerable to extinction (e.g., low densities and expansive ranges) also make it difficult to estimate demographic parameters needed for management. Here we develop an integrated population model to analyze capture-recapture, radiotelemetry, and count data for the Chukchi Sea subpopulation of polar bears (Ursus maritimus), 2008-2016. Our model addressed several challenges in capture-recapture studies for polar bears by including a multievent structure reflecting location and life history states, while accommodating state uncertainty. Female breeding probability was 0.83 (95% credible interval [CRI] = 0.71-0.90), with litter sizes of 2.18 (95% CRI = 1.71-2.82) for age-zero and 1.61 (95% CRI = 1.46-1.80) for age-one cubs. Total adult survival was 0.90 (95% CRI = 0.86-0.92) for females and 0.89 (95% CRI = 0.83-0.93) for males. Spring on-ice densities west of Alaska were 0.0030 bears/km2 (95% CRI = 0.0016-0.0060), similar to 1980s-era density estimates although methodological differences complicate comparison. Abundance of the Chukchi Sea subpopulation, derived by extrapolating density from the study area using a spatially-explicit habitat metric, was 2,937 bears (95% CRI = 1,552-5,944). Our findings are consistent with other lines of evidence suggesting the Chukchi Sea subpopulation has been productive in recent years, although it is uncertain how long this will continue given sea-ice loss due to climate change.
Project description:Climate change has broad ecological implications for species that rely on sensitive habitats. For some top predators, loss of habitat is expected to lead to cascading behavioral, nutritional, and reproductive changes that ultimately accelerate population declines. In the case of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus), declining Arctic sea ice reduces access to prey and lengthens seasonal fasting periods. We used a novel combination of physical capture, biopsy darting, and visual aerial observation data to project reproductive performance for polar bears by linking sea ice loss to changes in habitat use, body condition (i.e., fatness), and cub production. Satellite telemetry data from 43 (1991-1997) and 38 (2009-2015) adult female polar bears in the Baffin Bay subpopulation showed that bears now spend an additional 30 d on land (90 d in total) in the 2000s compared to the 1990s, a change closely correlated with changes in spring sea ice breakup and fall sea ice formation. Body condition declined for all sex, age, and reproductive classes and was positively correlated with sea ice availability in the current and previous year. Furthermore, cub litter size was positively correlated with maternal condition and spring breakup date (i.e., later breakup leading to larger litters), and negatively correlated with the duration of the ice-free period (i.e., longer ice-free periods leading to smaller litters). Based on these relationships, we projected reproductive performance three polar bear generations into the future (approximately 35 yr). Results indicate that two-cub litters, previously the norm, could largely disappear from Baffin Bay as sea ice loss continues. Our findings demonstrate how concurrent analysis of multiple data types collected over long periods from polar bears can provide a mechanistic understanding of the ecological implications of climate change. This information is needed for long-term conservation planning, which includes quantitative harvest risk assessments that incorporate estimated or assumed trends in future environmental carrying capacity.
Project description:Climate change is expected to result in range shifts and habitat fragmentation for many species. In the Arctic, loss of sea ice will reduce barriers to dispersal or eliminate movement corridors, resulting in increased connectivity or geographic isolation with sweeping implications for conservation. We used satellite telemetry, data from individually marked animals (research and harvest), and microsatellite genetic data to examine changes in geographic range, emigration, and interpopulation connectivity of the Baffin Bay (BB) polar bear (Ursus maritimus) subpopulation over a 25-year period of sea-ice loss. Satellite telemetry collected from n = 43 (1991-1995) and 38 (2009-2015) adult females revealed a significant contraction in subpopulation range size (95% bivariate normal kernel range) in most months and seasons, with the most marked reduction being a 70% decline in summer from 716,000 km2 (SE 58,000) to 211,000 km2 (SE 23,000) (p < .001). Between the 1990s and 2000s, there was a significant shift northward during the on-ice seasons (2.6° shift in winter median latitude, 1.1° shift in spring median latitude) and a significant range contraction in the ice-free summers. Bears in the 2000s were less likely to leave BB, with significant reductions in the numbers of bears moving into Davis Strait (DS) in winter and Lancaster Sound (LS) in summer. Harvest recoveries suggested both short and long-term fidelity to BB remained high over both periods (83-99% of marked bears remained in BB). Genetic analyses using eight polymorphic microsatellites confirmed a previously documented differentiation between BB, DS, and LS; yet weakly differentiated BB from Kane Basin (KB) for the first time. Our results provide the first multiple lines of evidence for an increasingly geographically and functionally isolated subpopulation of polar bears in the context of long-term sea-ice loss. This may be indicative of future patterns for other polar bear subpopulations under climate change.
Project description:Greenhouse-gas-induced warming in the Arctic has caused declines in sea ice extent and changed its composition, raising concerns by all circumpolar nations for polar bear conservation.Negative impacts have been observed in three well-studied polar bear subpopulations. Most subpopulations, however, receive little or no direct monitoring, hence, resource selection functions (RSF) may provide a useful proxy of polar bear distributions. However, the efficacy of RSFs constructed from past data, that is, reference RSFs, may be degraded under contemporary conditions, especially in a rapidly changing environment.We assessed published Arctic-wide reference RSFs using tracking data from adult female polar bears captured in the Beaufort Sea. We compared telemetry-derived seasonal distributions of polar bears to RSF-defined optimal sea ice habitat during the period of RSF model development, 1985-1995, and two subsequent periods with diminished sea ice: 1996-2006 and 2007-2016. From these comparisons, we assessed the applicability of the reference RSFs for contemporary polar bear conservation.In the two decades following the 1985-1995 reference period, use and availability of optimal habitat by polar bears declined during the ice melt, ice minimum, and ice growth seasons. During the ice maximum season (i.e., winter), polar bears used the best habitat available, which changed relatively little across the three decades of study. During the ice melt, ice minimum, and ice growth seasons, optimal habitat in areas used by polar bears decreased and was displaced north and east of the Alaska Beaufort Sea coast. As optimal habitat diminished in these seasons, polar bears expanded their range and occupied greater areas of suboptimal habitat.Synthesis and applications: Sea ice declines due to climate change continue to challenge polar bears and their conservation. The distribution of Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears remained similar during the ice maximum season, so the reference RSFs developed from data collected >20 years ago continue to accurately model their winter distribution. In contrast, reference RSFs for the ice transitional and minimum seasons showed diminished predictive efficacy but were useful in revealing that contemporary polar bears have been increasingly forced to use suboptimal habitats during those seasons.
Project description:Polar bears are ice-associated marine mammals that are known to swim and dive, yet their aquatic behaviour is poorly documented. Reductions in Arctic sea ice are clearly a major threat to this species, but understanding polar bears' potential behavioural plasticity with respect to the ongoing changes requires knowledge of their swimming and diving skills. This study quantified time spent in water by adult female polar bears (n?=?57) via deployment of various instruments bearing saltwater switches, and in some case pressure sensors (79 deployments, 64.8 bear-years of data). There were marked seasonal patterns in aquatic behaviour, with more time spent in the water during summer, when 75% of the polar bears swam daily (May-July). Females with cubs-of-the-year spent less time in the water than other females from den emergence (April) until mid-summer, consistent with small cubs being vulnerable to hypothermia and drowning. Some bears undertook notable long-distance-swims. Dive depths up to 13.9?m were recorded, with dives ?5?m being common. The considerable swimming and diving capacities of polar bears might provide them with tools to exploit aquatic environments previously not utilized. This is likely to be increasingly important to the species' survival in an Arctic with little or no persistent sea ice.
Project description:Loss of Arctic sea ice owing to climate change is the primary threat to polar bears throughout their range. We evaluated the potential response of polar bears to sea-ice declines by (i) calculating generation length (GL) for the species, which determines the timeframe for conservation assessments; (ii) developing a standardized sea-ice metric representing important habitat; and (iii) using statistical models and computer simulation to project changes in the global population under three approaches relating polar bear abundance to sea ice. Mean GL was 11.5 years. Ice-covered days declined in all subpopulation areas during 1979-2014 (median -1.26 days year-1). The estimated probabilities that reductions in the mean global population size of polar bears will be greater than 30%, 50% and 80% over three generations (35-41 years) were 0.71 (range 0.20-0.95), 0.07 (range 0-0.35) and less than 0.01 (range 0-0.02), respectively. According to IUCN Red List reduction thresholds, which provide a common measure of extinction risk across taxa, these results are consistent with listing the species as vulnerable. Our findings support the potential for large declines in polar bear numbers owing to sea-ice loss, and highlight near-term uncertainty in statistical projections as well as the sensitivity of projections to different plausible assumptions.
Project description:Increasing surface temperatures, Arctic sea-ice loss, and other evidence of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are acknowledged by every major scientific organization in the world. However, there is a wide gap between this broad scientific consensus and public opinion. Internet blogs have strongly contributed to this consensus gap by fomenting misunderstandings of AGW causes and consequences. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have become a "poster species" for AGW, making them a target of those denying AGW evidence. Here, focusing on Arctic sea ice and polar bears, we show that blogs that deny or downplay AGW disregard the overwhelming scientific evidence of Arctic sea-ice loss and polar bear vulnerability. By denying the impacts of AGW on polar bears, bloggers aim to cast doubt on other established ecological consequences of AGW, aggravating the consensus gap. To counter misinformation and reduce this gap, scientists should directly engage the public in the media and blogosphere.