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Evidence of intraspecific prey switching: stage-structured predation of polar bears on ringed seals

Reimer, Jody R., Brown, Hannah, Beltaos-Kerr, Elaine, de Vries, Gerda
Oecologia 2019 v.189 no.1 pp. 133-148
Pusa hispida, Ursus maritimus, models, population growth, predation, prey species, pups, seals, spring
Prey switching is a phenomenon in which a predator disproportionately consumes the most abundant prey type, and switches to preferentially consume another prey type if the first becomes relatively rare. This concept may be expanded outside of its usual usage describing switching between prey species (interspecific), to describe switching between prey stages within a given species (intraspecific). Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are thought to seek out naive ringed seal (Pusa hispida) pups in the spring, but how that may change in years with low seal productivity is unknown. We addressed two main questions: If polar bears typically select for ringed seals’ pups, how does this change in years with reduced ringed-seal productivity? How does polar bear predation during years with low ringed-seal productivity impact the ringed seal population? We created a matrix population model for ringed seals to get an estimate of each stage’s availability to polar bears in the spring. These estimates of availability were combined with existing studies on the ages of seals consumed by polar bears in years of both high and low ringed seal productivity. Our results suggest that polar bears typically strongly select for ringed seal pups, but switch to disproportionately select older ringed seals in years with low pup availability. The effects of this on ringed seal population growth appear negligible. Non-intuitive results on the effect of prey switching on the prey population emphasize the importance of considering environmental sequences rather than individual years.