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Title: Dietary ecology of Alaskan polar bears ( Ursus maritimus ) through time and in response to Arctic climate change

Arctic climate change poses serious threats to polar bears (Ursus maritimus) as reduced sea ice makes seal prey inaccessible and marine ecosystems undergo bottom‐up reorganization. Polar bears’ elongated skulls and reduced molar dentition, as compared to their sister species the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos), are adaptations associated with hunting seals on sea ice and a soft, lipid‐rich diet of blubber and meat. With significant declines in sea ice, it is unclear if and how polar bears may be altering their diets. Clarifying polar bear dietary responses to changing climates, both today and in the past, is critical to proper conservation and management of this apex predator. This is particularly important when a dietary strategy may be maladaptive. Here, we test the hypothesis that hard‐food consumption (i.e., less preferred foods including bone), inferred from dental microwear texture analysis, increased with Arctic warming. We find that polar bears demonstrate a conserved absence of hard‐object feeding in Alaska through time (including approximately 1000 years ago), until the 21st century, consistent with a highly conserved and specialized diet of soft blubber and flesh. Notably, our results also suggest that some 21st‐century polar bears may be consuming harder foods (e.g., increased carcass utilization, terrestrial foods including garbage), despite having skulls and metabolisms poorly suited for such a diet. Prior to the 21st century, only polar bears with larger mandibles demonstrated increased hard‐object feeding, though to a much lower degree than closely related grizzly bears which regularly consume mechanically challenging foods. Polar bears, being morphologically specialized, have biomechanical constraints which may limit their ability to consume mechanically challenging diets, with dietary shifts occurring only under the most extreme scenarios. Collectively, the highly specialized diets and cranial morphology of polar bears may severely limit their ability to adapt to a warming Arctic.

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Author(s) / Creator(s):
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Publisher / Repository:
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Global Change Biology
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 3109-3119
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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