Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) live throughout the ice-covered waters of the circumpolar Arctic, particularly in near shore annual ice over the continental shelf where biological productivity is highest. However, to a large degree under scenarios predicted by climate change models, these preferred sea ice habitats will be substantially altered. Spatial and temporal sea ice changes will lead to shifts in trophic interactions involving polar bears through reduced availability and abundance of their main prey: seals. In the short term, climatic warming may improve bear and seal habitats in higher latitudes over continental shelves if currently thick multiyear ice is replaced by annual ice with more leads, making it more suitable for seals. A cascade of impacts beginning with reduced sea ice will be manifested in reduced adipose stores leading to lowered reproductive rates because females will have less fat to invest in cubs during the winter fast. Non-pregnant bears may have to fast on land or offshore on the remaining multiyear ice through progressively longer periods of open water while they await freeze-up and a return to hunting seals. As sea ice thins, and becomes more fractured and labile, it is likely to move more in response to winds and currents so that polar bears will need to walk or swim more and thus use greater amounts of energy to maintain contact with the remaining preferred habitats. The effects of climate change are likely to show large geographic, temporal and even individual differences and be highly variable, making it difficult to develop adequate monitoring and research programs. All ursids show behavioural plasticity but given the rapid pace of ecological change in the Arctic, the long generation time, and the highly specialised nature of polar bears, it is unlikely that polar bears will survive as a species if the sea ice disappears completely as has been predicted by some.
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Vol. 44 • No. 2