Can whisker spot patterns be used to identify individual polar bears?


Jane M. Waterman, Department of Biology, University of Central Florida, 4000 Central Florida Blvd., Orlando, FL 32816, USA.


Studies of population dynamics, movement patterns and animal behavior usually require identification of individuals. We evaluated the reliability of using whisker spot patterns to noninvasively identify individual polar bears Ursus maritimus. We obtained the locations of polar bear whisker spots from photographs taken in western Hudson Bay, tested the independence of spot locations, estimated the complexity of each spot pattern in terms of information and determined whether each whisker spot pattern was reliable from its information content. Of the 50 whisker spot patterns analyzed, 98% contained enough information to be reliable, and this result varied little among observers. Photographs taken <50 m from polar bears were most useful. Our results suggest that individual identification of polar bears in the field based on whisker spot pattern variations is reliable. Researchers studying polar bear behavior or estimating population parameters can benefit from this method if proximity to the bears is feasible.