Rapid environmental change drives increased land use by an Arctic marine predator

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Abstract

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 openwater 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 spatiotemporal 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.

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Atwood, T. C., Peacock, E., McKinney, M. A., Lillie, K., Wilson, R., Douglas, D. C., … Terletzky, P. (2016). Rapid environmental change drives increased land use by an Arctic marine predator. PLoS ONE, 11(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0155932

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