Polar bear foraging on common eider eggs: estimating the energetic consequences of a climate-mediated behavioural shift

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Animal Behaviour



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common eider, East Bay Migratory Bird Sanctuary, eggs, energetic benefit–cost, foraging, Mitivik Island, polar bear, Somateria mollissima, terrestrial resource, Ursus maritimus

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Climate-mediated phenological shifts can cause species to lose access to their primary prey while increasing opportunities for alternative-prey encounters. Species that are able to capitalize on alternative resources could potentially profit from prey-switching should the benefits of procuring these alternative resources outweigh their acquisition costs. Polar bears, Ursus maritimus, use sea ice as a platform to hunt seals, and individuals inhabiting the southern-most extent of their range rely on accumulated fat reserves to sustain themselves during the increasingly lengthy ice-free season. In response to declining access to their primary prey through documented sea ice loss, some polar bears are foraging on the eggs of birds in lieu of hunting opportunities on ice, as their onshore arrival is increasingly overlapping with birds’ breeding schedules. To gain a better understanding of the energetic consequences of this behaviour, we used aerial drones to record polar bears foraging on sea duck eggs (common eider, Somateria mollissima) on Mitivik Island, Nunavut, Canada. Using these data, we examined variation in individual polar bear foraging behaviours and estimated the energetic benefits and costs associated with foraging on common eider eggs. Because of low costs associated with nest searching and consumption, the energetic cost of foraging remained relatively constant throughout the 2-week observation period. However, we found that as the common eider breeding season progressed, polar bears consumed eggs at a lower rate as they depleted the nesting colony and spent proportionally more time searching for nests. Collectively, this foraging pattern led to an overall declining trend in the net energy gained from egg consumption. Foraging on common eider eggs during increasingly lengthy ice-free seasons is apparently beneficial for polar bears, but only during a limited window of opportunity. By coupling energetic estimates with detailed behavioural data collected through aerial videography, this study provides a quantification of both the benefits and costs of egg consumption for polar bears.