Harsh, Arctic Winters Don't Cause All Animals to Hibernate

First Posted: Sep 25, 2015 09:57 AM EDT

What happens in the Arctic during the cold, dark winter? Most would think that little happens. Now, researchers have examined the activities of many different species during three consecutive winters in Svalbard, and have found that some are more active than expected.

"This once and for all changes the way we think of marine ecosystems during the polar night," said Jorgen Berge, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The dark polar night is not a period without any biological activity [as had been assumed]. Concealed behind the curtain of darkness is a world of activity, beauty, and ecosystem importance."

In this latest study, the researchers did a large-scale survey and ecosystem study of the polar night in one of the Svalbard fjords during three consecutive winters. Instead of an ecosystem that had entered a resting state, though, the researchers found a system buzzing with biological activity. In fact, the diversity and reproductive activity of some species was actually great during the winter than at other times of the year.

For example, the scientists found that copepods and other zooplankton were actively reproducing as filter-feeding Iceland scallops kept right on growing. Baited traps with time-lapse cameras revealed an abundant and active community of shallow-water scavengers, including whelks, amphipods and crabs.

"Not only are they there, but they are able to find their preferred food in the total darkness," said Berge. "We do not know how they are able to do this, and we do not know how common it is for seabirds to overwinter at these latitudes. But we [now] know that they do."

The findings reveal a bit more about this dark, arctic ecosystem. This is particularly important to note as climate change continues in order to see how these systems also change.

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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