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Feeding habits of Baffin Bay polar bears (Ursus maritimus): insight from stable isotopes and total mercury in hair

Jennifer H. Stern*, Kristin L. Laidre, Erik W. Born, Øystein Wiig, Christian Sonne, Rune Dietz, Aaron Fisk, Melissa A. McKinney

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Loss of sea ice brought on by climate change affects polar bear (Ursus maritimus) access to prey. Here we investigated variation in feeding habits of the Baffin Bay (BB) polar bear subpopulation in relation to sea ice, habitat use, season, and demography using hair carbon (δ13C), nitrogen (δ15N), and sulfur (δ34S) stable isotope values and total mercury (THg) concentrations as ecological tracers. We analyzed hair samples from BB polar bears (n = 131) of all age and sex classes live-captured in West Greenland during the spring of 2009-2013. BB polar bears occupied a narrow isotopic space, suggesting limited variation in carbon sources and trophic position within the subpopulation. THg concentrations (5.1 ± 0.2, 0.3 - 12.5 μg g-1 dw) were related to age class and nearly half exceeded the known threshold for neurological effects in polar bears at 5.4 μg g-1 dw. Although distinct coastal and offshore space-use strategies have been reported for BB polar bears, our results suggest that both strategies lead to similar carbon sources and trophic positions. We found seasonal variation in δ13C and δ34S across both space-use strategies, with δ34S suggesting that all BB polar bears may predate on a higher proportion of the benthic-feeding bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) in late summer relative to spring. Despite wide fluctuations in inter-annual sea ice conditions and differences in space-use strategies among individuals, stable isotope values and THg concentrations suggested limited variation in feeding habits among BB polar bears. The variation of habitat tracers (δ13C and δ34S) was related to season, whereas trophic tracer (δ15N and THg) variation was driven by demographic group. The specialized BB polar bear diet suggests limited feeding plasticity under continued climate warming.