Impact of Holocene environmental change on the evolutionary ecology of an Arctic top predator

Michael V. Westbury, Stuart C. Brown, Julie Lorenzen, Stuart O'Neill, Michael B. Scott, Julia McCuaig, Christina Cheung, Edward Armstrong, Paul J. Valdes, José Alfredo Samaniego Castruita, Andrea A. Cabrera, Stine Keibel Blom, Rune Dietz, Christian Sonne, Marie Louis, Anders Galatius, Damien A. Fordham, Sofia Ribeiro, Paul Szpak, Eline D. Lorenzen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


The Arctic is among the most climatically sensitive environments on Earth, and the disappearance of multiyear sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is predicted within decades. As apex predators, polar bears are sentinel species for addressing the impact of environmental variability on Arctic marine ecosystems. By integrating genomics, isotopic analysis, morphometrics, and ecological modeling, we investigate how Holocene environmental changes affected polar bears around Greenland. We uncover reductions in effective population size coinciding with increases in annual mean sea surface temperature, reduction in sea ice cover, declines in suitable habitat, and shifts in suitable habitat northward. Furthermore, we show that west and east Greenlandic polar bears are morphologically, and ecologically distinct, putatively driven by regional biotic and genetic differences. Together, we provide insights into the vulnerability of polar bears to environmental change and how the Arctic marine ecosystem plays a vital role in shaping the evolutionary and ecological trajectories of its inhabitants.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbereadf3326
Pages (from-to)eadf3326
Number of pages12
JournalScience advances
Issue number45
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2023

Programme Area

  • Programme Area 5: Nature and Climate


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