Reproductive biology and ecology of female polar bears (Ursus maritimus).
J. Zool. Lond., 214: 601-634.
Data on age‐specific natality rates, litter size, interbirth interval, age of first reproduction, reproductive senescence, age of weaning and cub survival were determined for a free‐ranging population of polar bears inhabiting Hudson Bay, Canada, near the southern limit of the species range. Serum progesterone levels were also determined for females at different stages of their reproductive cycle to provide corroborative support for the reproductive parameters described. Animals were live captured using immobilizing drugs and each animal uniquely marked for future identification. First parturition occurred at four or five years of age and the age‐specific natality rate increased with age until approximately 20 years, after which it dropped markedly. At least 40% of adult females displayed two‐year interbirth intervals and 55% of cubs in their second year were independent of their mother. Mean size of cub litters in spring was 1.9 and 13% of litters had three or more cubs. The natality rate for 5–20‐year‐old females was estimated as 0.9, higher than that reported for any more northerly polar bear populations where two‐year interbirth intervals are rare, fewer than 5% of yearling cubs are weaned and triplet litters occur with less than 1% frequency. Cub mortality was initially high and declined with age. Although cubs in western Hudson Bay were weaned at a younger age and a lighter weight than their counterparts in more northern populations, cub mortality rates were similar. The reason for the marked differences in reproductive parameters in the western Hudson Bay population is not known. We speculate that sea‐ice conditions may be sufficiently different to allow weaned bears at a lighter body weight to hunt seals more successfully there than further north.