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Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Habitat, Space Use,and Movements in a Seasonal Sea Ice Ecoregion Open Access


Other title
spatial ecology
polar bear
sea ice
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Sahanatien, Vicki A.M.
Supervisor and department
Andrew E. Derocher, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta
Examining committee member and department
Christian Haas, Department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering, York University
David Hik, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta
Colleen Cassady St. Claire, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta
Philip McLoughlin, Department of Biologoy, University of Saskatchewan
Ian Stirling, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta
Department of Biological Sciences
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are sea ice habitat specialists and climate change has affected sea ice throughout this species’ circumpolar range. The annual phenological cycle of sea ice growth and decay is a strong influence on polar bear distribution and ecology. Study of the habitat selection, movements and spatial ecology of polar bears in the seasonal sea ice ecoregion has been limited but this is where the most rapid loss of ice has occurred. In this thesis, to study movements and space use, I used satellite telemetry to collect year round (2007-2011) location data of female polar bears and ice-free season location data of male polar bears, and, satellite imagery to analyze sea ice habitat. I began with an overall assessment of the state of sea ice habitat in Foxe Basin. Using microwave satellite imagery (25 x 25 km² resolution) sea ice concentration maps were classified into four habitat quality categories and the trends (1979-2008) in fragmentation patch metrics analyzed. I found that the amount of preferred sea ice habitat declined in autumn and spring, sea ice season length decreased, and habitat fragmentation increased. The observed trends may affect polar bear movement patterns, energetics, and ultimately population trends. When on the sea ice, female polar bears were distributed in three spatial clusters that broadly coincided with the three marine water bodies, Foxe Basin, Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay. Differences in movement metrics (home range, movement rates, time on ice) were observed between clusters that may reflect sea ice habitat conditions and ocean productivity. Annual and seasonal home range fidelity were observed and the bears used two movement patterns: on-ice range residency and annual migration. High resolution (150 x 150 m) synthetic aperture radar (SAR) was tested as an information source to examine sea ice habitat structure, as described by floes and leads that were available to female polar bears during their daily movements. I found that the fine scale ice floe and lead patch density were the most important sea ice characteristics for bears when foraging on sea ice. Standard important broad scale variables, ice concentration, bathymetry and distance to land were not in the top resource selection models. I examined the terrestrial movement patterns and behaviour of female and male polar bears during the annual period of minimum ice cover. The bears remained near the coast but were segregated by sex and reproductive status. All bears moved extensively and swimming was a regular behaviour. I propose an explanatory mechanistic model for terrestrial movement patterns and behaviours during the ice free season based on external (abiotic and biotic) and internal (sex, reproductive status) factors. My research provides new analytical approaches for monitoring sea ice habitat and study of the functional relationships between bears, their prey and the sea ice ecosystem.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
Citation for previous publication
Sahanatien V. and Derocher A.E. 2012. Monitoring sea ice habitat fragmentation for polar bear conservation. Animal Conservation 15:397-406.Sahanatien, V., Peacock, E., and Derocher, A.E. 2015. Ecology and Evolution 14:2851-2864.

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