Date: November 16, 2016
Source: Florida Atlantic University
Declines in the Arctic sea ice are arguably the most dramatic evidence of the effects of current climate warming on ocean systems. Native peoples of the far north have long appreciated and relied upon the migrations of animals with the changing seasons, including some of the largest and least studied, the Arctic whales. While sea ice is perhaps the most defining feature of their habitat, the relationship between Arctic whales and sea ice is still largely a mystery, and there is increasing concern over how these species will adapt to climate related changes in sea ice.
Researchers from Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and a team of scientists working in collaboration with Native hunters in Alaska and Canada have just published results of a study in the Royal Society Biology Letters titled, "Genetic Profiling Links Changing Sea Ice to Shifting Beluga Whale Migration Patterns," assessing the relationship between changing sea ice and beluga whale migration as well as summer residency patterns of a number of populations over two decades of dramatic sea ice changes in the Pacific Arctic. The researchers found that beluga whales, often known as the white whale, (Delphinapterus leucas) exhibited a tremendous ability to deal with widely varying sea ice conditions from one year to the next over a 20-year time frame in their return to traditional summering grounds each year.
"It was not clear how sea ice influences beluga whale migration patterns and their summer habitat use, and climate change has added urgency to determining how environmental factors might shape the behavior and ecology of this species," said Greg O'Corry-Crowe, Ph.D., lead author and a research professor at FAU Harbor Branch, whose research focuses on combining molecular genetic analysis with field ecology to study the molecular and behavioral ecology of marine apex predators.