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Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations



Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have experienced substantial changes in the seasonal availability of sea ice habitat in parts of their range, including the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering Seas. In this study, we compared the body size, condition, and recruitment of polar bears captured in the Chukchi and Bering Seas (CS) between two periods (1986–1994 and 2008–2011) when declines in sea ice habitat occurred. In addition, we compared metrics for the CS population 2008–2011 with those of the adjacent southern Beaufort Sea (SB) population where loss in sea ice habitat has been associated with declines in body condition, size, recruitment, and survival. We evaluated how variation in body condition and recruitment were related to feeding ecology. Comparing habitat conditions between populations, there were twice as many reduced ice days over continental shelf waters per year during 2008–2011 in the SB than in the CS. CS polar bears were larger and in better condition, and appeared to have higher reproduction than SB bears. Although SB and CS bears had similar diets, twice as many bears were fasting in spring in the SB than in the CS. Between 1986–1994 and 2008–2011, body size, condition, and recruitment indices in the CS were not reduced despite a 44-day increase in the number of reduced ice days. Bears in the CS exhibited large body size, good body condition, and high indices of recruitment compared to most other populations measured to date. Higher biological productivity and prey availability in the CS relative to the SB, and a shorter recent history of reduced sea ice habitat, may explain the maintenance of condition and recruitment of CS bears. Geographic differences in the response of polar bears to climate change are relevant to range-wide forecasts for this and other ice-dependent species.