Female polar bears, Ursus maritimus, on the Barents Sea drift ice: walking the treadmill

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
M. Mauritzen
Animal Behaviour
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For animals in dynamic habitats, the contribution of passive (i.e. by wind or current) and active (movements by the animals themselves) displacement determines whether their space use reflects physical or adaptive behavioural processes. Polar bears in the Barents Sea undertake extensive annual migrations in a habitat that is highly dynamic because of continuous sea ice drift. Using combined information from satellite telemetry, satellite images and atmospheric pressure recordings, we estimated the contribution of sea ice drift and movements in the monthly net displacement of female polar bears. We found that movements, and thus behavioural processes, were dominant. Net displacement was directed northwards during summer ice retreat and southwards during winter ice advance. Conversely, movements were directed northwards counteracting a continuous southward drift. Acting as a treadmill, ice drift probably increased the energetic cost of migrations relative to that expected from observed net displacement distances; this suggests that pelagic and adjadcent near-shore bears, on stable land-fast ice, have different energy costs. Little concordance between ice drift rates and net displacement and movement rates suggest that polar bears do not adjust their displacement relative to attractive areas with fixed locations, but rather adjust their movements to local habitat suitability. Furthermore, selective use of less dynamic drift ice when with cubs-of-the-year, and use of terrestrial denning areas, appear to be behavioural adaptations to the dynamics of the Barents Sea drift ice. Hence, understanding the behaviour and ecology of animals inhabiting dynamic habitats necessitates incorporation of both dynamic and static habitat variables.


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