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Open Access Research article

Dietary composition and spatial patterns of polar bear foraging on land in western Hudson Bay

Linda J Gormezano* and Robert F Rockwell

Author Affiliations

Division of Vertebrate Zoology, American Museum of Natural History, 79th Street and Central Park West, 10024 New York, NY, USA

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BMC Ecology 2013, 13:51  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-13-51

Published: 21 December 2013

Abstract

Background

Flexible foraging strategies, such as prey switching, omnivory and food mixing, are key to surviving in a labile and changing environment. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in western Hudson Bay are versatile predators that use all of these strategies as they seasonally exploit resources across trophic levels. Climate warming is reducing availability of their ice habitat, especially in spring when polar bears gain most of their annual fat reserves by consuming seal pups before coming ashore in summer. How polar bears combine these flexible foraging strategies to obtain and utilize terrestrial food will become increasingly important in compensating for energy deficits from lost seal hunting opportunities. We evaluated patterns in the composition of foods in scat to characterize the foraging behaviors that underpin the diet mixing and omnivory observed in polar bears on land in western Hudson Bay. Specifically, we measured diet richness, proportions of plant and animal foods, patterns in co-occurrence of foods, spatial composition and an index of temporal composition.

Results

Scats contained between 1 and 6 foods, with an average of 2.11 (SE = 0.04). Most scats (84.9%) contained at least one type of plant, but animals (35.4% of scats) and both plants and animals occurring together (34.4% of scats) were also common. Certain foods, such as Lyme grass seed heads (Leymus arenarius), berries and marine algae, were consumed in relatively higher proportions, sometimes to the exclusion of others, both where and when they occurred most abundantly. The predominance of localized vegetation in scats suggests little movement among habitat types between feeding sessions. Unlike the case for plants, no spatial patterns were found for animal remains, likely due the animals’ more vagile and ubiquitous distribution.

Conclusions

Our results suggest that polar bears are foraging opportunistically in a manner consistent with maximizing intake while minimizing energy expenditure associated with movement. The frequent mixing of plant-based carbohydrate and animal-based protein could suggest use of a strategy that other Ursids employ to maximize weight gain. Further, consuming high rates of certain vegetation and land-based animals that may yield immediate energetic gains could, instead, provide other benefits such as fulfilling vitamin/mineral requirements, diluting toxins and assessing new foods for potential switching.