Aquatic behaviour of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in an increasingly ice-free Arctic

Karen Lone*, Kit M. Kovacs, Christian Lydersen, Mike Fedak, Magnus Andersen, Philip Lovell, Jon Aars

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
3 Downloads (Pure)


Polar bears are ice-associated marine mammals that are known to swim and dive, yet their aquatic behaviour is poorly documented. Reductions in Arctic sea ice are clearly a major threat to this species, but understanding polar bears' potential behavioural plasticity with respect to the ongoing changes requires knowledge of their swimming and diving skills. This study quantified time spent in water by adult female polar bears (n = 57) via deployment of various instruments bearing saltwater switches, and in some case pressure sensors (79 deployments, 64.8 bear-years of data). There were marked seasonal patterns in aquatic behaviour, with more time spent in the water during summer, when 75% of the polar bears swam daily (May-July). Females with cubs-of-the-year spent less time in the water than other females from den emergence (April) until mid-summer, consistent with small cubs being vulnerable to hypothermia and drowning. Some bears undertook notable long-distance-swims. Dive depths up to 13.9 m were recorded, with dives ≥5 m being common. The considerable swimming and diving capacities of polar bears might provide them with tools to exploit aquatic environments previously not utilized. This is likely to be increasingly important to the species' survival in an Arctic with little or no persistent sea ice.

Original languageEnglish
Article number9677
Number of pages12
JournalScientific Reports
Early online date26 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2018


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