Circumpolar contaminant concentrations in polar bears (Ursus maritimus) and potential population-level effects

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Abstract

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) currently receive much attention in the context of global climate change. However, there are other stressors that might threaten the viability of polar bear populations as well, such as exposure to anthropogenic pollutants. Lipophilic organic compounds bio-accumulate and bio-magnify in the food chain, leading to high concentrations at the level of top-predators. In Arctic wildlife, including the polar bear, various adverse health effects have been related to internal concentrations of commercially used anthropogenic chemicals like PCB and DDT. The extent to which these individual health effects are associated to population-level effects is, however, unknown. In this study we assembled data on adipose tissue concentrations of ΣPCB, ΣDDT, dieldrin and ΣPBDE in individual polar bears from peer-reviewed scientific literature. Data were available for 14 out of the 19 subpopulations. We found that internal concentrations of these contaminants exceed threshold values for adverse individual health effects in several subpopulations. In an exploratory regression analysis we identified a clear negative correlation between polar bear population density and sub-population specific contaminant concentrations in adipose tissue. The results suggest that adverse health effects of contaminants in individual polar bears may scale up to population-level consequences. Our study highlights the need to consider contaminant exposure along with other threats in polar bear population viability analyses.

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