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Arctic Marine Mammals Act as Ecosystem Sentinels Amid Changing Climate

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Feb 14, 2014 03:43 PM EST
a bearded sea with monitoring device.
Polar bears, walruses, seals and other Arctic marine mammals act as ecosystem sentinels, according to a new study, which suggests that the behaviors of the animals can be used to provide clues about how the ecosystem is responding to a changing climate. Pictures is a bearded sea with monitoring device. (Photo : M.Cameron NOAA/NMML)

Polar bears, walruses, seals and other Arctic marine mammals act as ecosystem sentinels, according to a new study, which suggests that the behaviors of the animals can be used to provide clues about how the ecosystem is responding to a changing climate.

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The news was presented this week at the 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

NOAA oceanographer Sue Moore presented the findings, highlighting how various Arctic marine mammals are responding to changing environmental conditions. Animals that rely on seasonal ice for their habitat are having to adapt to shorter ice seasons and less overall ice, and by studying them, researchers can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the complex climate situation at hand.

Whales, too, can be a useful environmental sentinel because researchers can study the timing of their migration patterns and the habitats they frequent as the marine ecosystem undergoes changes.

"Marine mammals can act as ecosystem sentinels because they respond to climate change through shifts in distribution, timing of their movements and feeding locations," Moore said. "These long-lived mammals also reflect changes to the ecosystem in their shifts in diet, body condition and physical health."

Moore's presentation was part of a broader study by US and Canadian scientists seeking to assess the health of marine mammals and indigenous people in the Arctic.

She stressed the importance of integrating marine mammal health research into the overall research regarding climate, weather, oceanographic and social science studies underway in the Arctic.

"Marine mammals connect people to ecosystem research by making it relevant to those who live in the Arctic and depend on these mammals for diet and cultural heritage and people around the world who look to these animals as symbols of our planet's health," Moore said.

The recently released Arctic Biodiversity Assessment seconds Moore's call, offering policy makers suggestions and solutions to ensure that the more than 21,000 species that make their home in the Arctic have a fighting chance amid climate change.

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