Phenotypic plasticity and climate change: Can polar bears respond to longer Arctic summers with an adaptive fast?

By: , and 



Plasticity in the physiological and behavioural responses of animals to prolonged food shortages may determine the persistence of species under climate warming. This is particularly applicable for species that can “adaptively fast” by conserving protein to protect organ function while catabolizing endogenous tissues. Some Ursids, including polar bears (Ursus maritimus), adaptively fast during winter hibernation—and it has been suggested that polar bears also employ this strategy during summer. We captured 57 adult female polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea (SBS) during summer 2008 and 2009 and measured blood variables that indicate feeding, regular fasting, and adaptive fasting. We also assessed tissue δ13C and δ15N to infer diet, and body condition via mass and length. We found that bears on shore maintained lipid and protein stores by scavenging on bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) carcasses from human harvest, while those that followed the retreating sea ice beyond the continental shelf were food deprived. They had low ratios of blood urea to creatinine (U:C), normally associated with adaptive fasting. However, they also exhibited low albumin and glucose (indicative of protein loss) and elevated alanine aminotransferase and ghrelin (which fall during adaptive fasting). Thus, the ~ 70% of the SBS subpopulation that spends summer on the ice experiences more of a regular, rather than adaptive, fast. This fast will lengthen as summer ice declines. The resulting protein loss prior to winter could be a mechanism driving the reported correlation between summer ice and polar bear reproduction and survival in the SBS.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Phenotypic plasticity and climate change: Can polar bears respond to longer Arctic summers with an adaptive fast?
Series title Oecologia
DOI 10.1007/s00442-017-4023-0
Volume 186
Issue 2
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Springer
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB
Description 13 p.
First page 369
Last page 381
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