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MEPS prepress abstract   -  DOI:

Lactation performance in polar bears is associated with fasting time and energetic state

L. C. Archer*, S. N. Atkinson, A. M. Pagano, S. R. Penk, P. K. Molnár

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Females must continually make resource allocation decisions because of fitness trade-offs between self-maintenance and investment in current offspring, yet factors underpinning these decisions are unresolved. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) face considerable allocation challenges when seasonal sea-ice melt precludes access to prey for several months, and females rely solely on energy stores to cover their own energetic needs and provision offspring. We tested how female polar bears regulate lactation during onshore fasting (i.e., capital breeding) and determined the consequences of moderated lactation for females and cubs. Overall, milk energy declined, and lactation was more likely to cease with longer time fasting. Lactation was partially mediated by maternal energetic state and depended on litter characteristics. Milk energy declined more sharply with fasting time (~2.6 times more strongly) in females with two offspring compared to those with one. Females with cubs-of-the-year produced relatively higher energy milk than those with yearlings, and their milk energy also increased more strongly with energy density. Milk energy declines benefited females via reduced depletion of maternal energy reserves, but cub growth decreased. Altered lactation investment likely has consequences for both female survival and the fate of offspring, which could scale up to influence population dynamics. Given Arctic warming means polar bears across much of their range will experience longer periods without access to primary prey, our results underscore how lactation will likely become increasingly compromised.