Establishing a definition of polar bear (Ursus maritimus) health: a guide to research and management activities

Sci Total Environ. 2015 May 1;514:371-8. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.02.007. Epub 2015 Feb 11.


The meaning of health for wildlife and perspectives on how to assess and measure health, are not well characterized. For wildlife at risk, such as some polar bear (Ursus maritimus) subpopulations, establishing comprehensive monitoring programs that include health status is an emerging need. Environmental changes, especially loss of sea ice habitat, have raised concern about polar bear health. Effective and consistent monitoring of polar bear health requires an unambiguous definition of health. We used the Delphi method of soliciting and interpreting expert knowledge to propose a working definition of polar bear health and to identify current concerns regarding health, challenges in measuring health, and important metrics for monitoring health. The expert opinion elicited through the exercise agreed that polar bear health is defined by characteristics and knowledge at the individual, population, and ecosystem level. The most important threats identified were in decreasing order: climate change, increased nutritional stress, chronic physiological stress, harvest management, increased exposure to contaminants, increased frequency of human interaction, diseases and parasites, and increased exposure to competitors. Fifteen metrics were identified to monitor polar bear health. Of these, indicators of body condition, disease and parasite exposure, contaminant exposure, and reproductive success were ranked as most important. We suggest that a cumulative effects approach to research and monitoring will improve the ability to assess the biological, ecological, and social determinants of polar bear health and provide measurable objectives for conservation goals and priorities and to evaluate progress.

Keywords: Delphi; Polar bear; Survey; Ursus maritimus; Wildlife health.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Climate Change
  • Conservation of Natural Resources / methods*
  • Ecosystem
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Ice Cover
  • Ursidae / physiology*


  • Environmental Pollutants