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Prey selection of polar bears in Foxe Basin, Nunavut, Canada: evidence of dietary flexibility in a specialized predator

Citation

Galicia, Melissa P. et al. (2021), Prey selection of polar bears in Foxe Basin, Nunavut, Canada: evidence of dietary flexibility in a specialized predator, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.pzgmsbcm3

Abstract

Ecological flexibility of a species reflects its ability to cope with environmental change. Although polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are experiencing changes in foraging opportunities due to sea ice loss, regional prey availability and environmental conditions will influence the rate and severity of these effects. We examined changes in polar bear diet and the influence of sea ice characteristics in Foxe Basin over an 18-year period. We combined previous fatty acid data from bears harvested from 1999-2003 (n = 82) with additional data from 2010-2018 (n = 397). Polar bear diets were diverse, however ringed seal (Pusa hispida) was the primary prey throughout the sample period. Prey contribution varied temporally and spatially, and by intrinsic factors, while the frequency of prey in diets varied over time suggesting that diet estimates reflect the variability in available prey. Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), although still a minor dietary component, has more than doubled in frequency of occurrence in diets in recent years in association with increased scavenging opportunities. Higher dietary levels of beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) and harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) were linked to later breakup date suggesting heavier ice conditions may promote access to both prey species. The flexible foraging strategies of bears in Foxe Basin may help mitigate their vulnerability to changes in prey distribution and habitat conditions. Our results provide insights into the importance of alternative and supplemental food sources for polar bears during phenological changes in ice conditions that will likely have consequences to Arctic community structure as warming continues.

Usage Notes

Data includes a set of 30 fatty acids (FAs) of individual polar bears and mean prey used to estimate predator diet via quantitative fatty acid signature analysis (QFASA). FAs are identified using the nomenclature A:Bn-X, where A is the carbon chain length, B is the number of double bonds, and X is the position of the first double bond in relation to the terminal methyl group. Typically, over 70 FAs are identified in each adipose tissue sample (of individual predator and prey) and expressed as the mass percentage of total FA.