Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Eric M. Gese


Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are experiencing rapid and substantial changes to their environment due to global climate change. Polar bears of the southern Beaufort Sea (SB) have historically spent most of the year on the sea ice. However, recent reports from Alaska indicate that the proportion of the SB subpopulation observed onshore during late summer and early fall has increased considerably. Previous research suggests that the number of polar bears onshore is linked to sea ice conditions and the availability of subsistence-harvested whale carcasses, which are referred to as bone piles. My objectives were to determine the development and fitness consequences for SB polar bears that come onshore. Furthermore, I aimed to reveal the number of polar bears that come onshore and feed at whale carcasses. I used a combination of genetic and behavioral data collected on SB polar bears from 2010-2013 to determine if onshore behavior developed through genetic inheritance, asocial learning, or social learning. I found that onshore behavior was primarily transmitted via mother-offspring social learning. I used hair samples collected at bone piles near Kaktovik, Alaska from 2011-2014 and genetic capture-recapture techniques to estimate the annual number of polar bears that visited the bone piles and rates of apparent site fidelity to the bone pile. I estimated that as many as 146 (SE = 21) SB polar bears visited the bone piles near Kaktovik in 2012. Annual rates of apparent site fidelity to the bone pile for male polar bears ranged from 0.60 (SE = 0.07) to 0.61 (SE = 0.07), and female rates of apparent site fidelity was 0.69 (SE = 0.19). Lastly, I used quantitative fatty acid signature analysis to estimate the proportion of bowhead whale, ringed seal, bearded seal, and beluga whale in the diets of SB polar bears from 2004-2015. I revealed that polar bears achieved higher body condition by coming onshore and feeding at whale carcasses. Overall, my results indicated that SB polar bears are socially learning from their mother to come onshore and that this behavior is linked to increased body condition.