Pregnant polar bears (Ursus maritimus) construct maternal dens out of snow in the autumn where they give birth to and raise altricial young. In recent years, there has been a decrease in polar sea ice extent and thickness, which has led to changes in denning behavior. One such change in the southern Beaufort Sea (SBS) is that polar bears are selecting maternal den sites on land, rather than on unstable sea ice. This change, coupled with expanding petroleum exploration along Alaska's North Slope, heightens the likelihood of bear-human interactions at maternal den sites. The purpose of this research was to 1) describe polar bears' post-den emergence behavior, establishing a benchmark for comparison to identify behavioral changes associated with climate change and disturbance, and 2) explore factors influencing the efficacy of a currently used den detection method, forward-looking infrared (FLIR). Maternal den sites were observed along Alaska's North Slope from March to April of 2009 and 2010. The mean length of stay at den sites post-emergence was 11.3 ± 7.5 d. The mean date of den emergence was 14 March; abandonment 26 March. Adult females were generally inactive (58.4% out-of-den time) with standing being the most prevalent activity (49.9%). Cubs were generally active (76.7%), playing more than any other activity (45.3%). Bears spent the majority of their time in the den (97.3% for adult females and 99% for cubs) with short bouts of intermittent activity (× = 7 min 42 s). We documented the death of one member of a triplet polar bear litter at its den site. All three cubs showed low activity levels relative to other cubs observed, and one died within one week of den emergence. Necropsy confirmed that the dead cub had a low body weight and was malnourished. Capture later confirmed that the two surviving cubs were also undersized. Triplet litters are often smaller and suffer higher mortality rates than singletons and twins. This cub was not only a triplet but also born following 2 y of record minimum sea ice extent, both of which may have played a role in this cub's death. Concurrent with the den emergence portion of this work, we conducted a separate study to identify limitations and optimal conditions for locating dens using FLIR. We took handheld FLIR images of three artificial dens under varied conditions. We tested variables hypothesized to influence detectability with linear models using a zero-inflated negative binomial distribution. Solar radiation, wind speed, and den wall thickness reduced the likelihood of detecting dens. The negative effect of wind speed on detectability increased with increasing distance. To maximize the efficacy of hand-held FLIR, den surveys should be conducted when solar radiation is <16 w/m2 (night) and when wind speed is <10 km/h (6 mph). Adherence to these guidelines will maximize the protection FLIR can afford to denning bears.



College and Department

Life Sciences; Plant and Wildlife Sciences



Date Submitted


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Alaska, Beaufort Sea, climate change, cub mortality, FLIR, maternity den, North Slope, polar bear, Ursus maritimus