Climate Change: Rapidly Warming Arctic May be Driving Shifts in Marine Mammals

First Posted: Dec 14, 2015 04:51 PM EST

Rapid arctic warming may be driving some major shifts in marine mammals. A new hydrophone survey of migration gateways to the Arctic shows that recent extremes has opened new waters to humpback and fin whales.

Climate change is currently driving ice into retreat. This means that new passages are opening for new animals. In fact, the potential for increasing competition between species from whales to polar bears reflects just one of many examples of how climate change is affecting marine mammals globally.

"We see winners and losers as changes accelerate, and some of the winners are likely to be those that are most adaptable and resilient to change," said Sue Moore, one of the researchers, in a news release.

Marine mammals can reflect climate change intrinsically through changes in their diet and conditions, as well as extrinsically, through shifts in their range and habitat. Climate change will likely present new opportunities for some species such as humpback whales that will have access to new habitat, even as it poses new problems for other species, such as walrus and polar bears.

Some research is looking into the past for clues as to how climate change may affect marine mammals. For example, walruses have changed their diets over thousands of years during periods of environmental change. This type of generalism may help them transfer to other prey items.

"New research has revealed many mechanisms connecting rapid sea-ice loss, Arctic warming, and weather tendencies," said Jennifer Francis, a researcher. "It's not simple, but as Mother Nature keeps dishing out these unusual events we can start to connect the dots between them to understand the larger picture of what's happening and how it's likely to affect animals within and beyond the Arctic including humans."

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