Arctic Wildlife Are Shifting Their Behaviors Due to Climate Change

The new, collaborative data archive tracks nearly 100 species over the last three decades

Six caribou are in the foreground, trekking through the snow. Behind them is a snowy hill.
The new archive tracks how 96 different species have moved across the Arctic over the last 28 years. Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. Across the region's 5.5 million square miles of land and ocean, wildlife species—like caribou, golden eagles, grizzly bears and whales—are adjusting their behavior to cope with the effects brought on by climate change.

To understand how wildlife are switching things up as temperatures warm, more than 100 scientists from 17 countries banded together to establish the Arctic Animal Movement Archive (AAMA). They compiled their individual data into a massive archive, creating a comprehensive dataset for collaborators to use. Altogether, it tracks how 96 different species have moved across the Arctic over the last 28 years, reports Liz Kimbrough for Mongabay.

A new study published last week in the journal Science introduced the AAMA and highlighted how the long-term, wide-scale dataset can reveal patterns animal behavior over a decades-long timeline.

"I’m really excited about how this work shows what you can learn from comparing data across populations on a very large scale," co-author Elie Gurarie, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, says in a press release. "We’re increasing our ability to monitor the pulse of animal populations across the Earth and ask big picture questions about what it means."

The international team of scientists presented three new discoveries about animal migrations that were gleaned from the archive's data, reports Karina Shah for New Scientist.

Gurarie and his team found that northernmost herds of caribou are giving birth earlier than usual, reports Mongabay. In theory, if calves are born earlier, they could enjoy a longer summer season to feed. The more likely situation is that the calves are being born before their mothers make it to the usual calving grounds where vegation is abundant. Instead, the caribou calves are being born in barren, low-resource areas. Either way, caribou populations have been plummeting, especially as a result of low calf survival, wildlife biologist Allicia Kelly tells CBC.

Likewise, juvenile golden eagles arrive to their summer breeding grounds earlier after mild winters, but adults are arriving at around the same time each year, regardless of climate conditions. The reason why is still hazy, but scientists say that this difference can have consequences for the eagles' breeding success and chick survival, the press release says.

Lastly, the study found that bears, moose, wolves and caribou all respond differently to changes in the climate. As the climate continues to change, interspecies relationships—like predator-prey interactions, foraging or hunting success, and competition—will also shift, reports Mongabay.

The Arctic as a whole is changing as we know it. The sea ice is melting, the forests are expanding northward, and permafrost is thawing, reports Amanda Heidt for The Scientist. Plus, the region is also experiencing stress from tourism, mining and the fossil fuel industry.

"Everything put together—human activity, climate change, changes to patterns of snow and rain and temperature, and the timing of the seasons—we expect that all of that will affect the ecology of the animals in the Arctic," co-author Gil Bohrer, an environmental engineer at the Ohio State University, tells The Scientist. "It’s already been demonstrated that things are happening. We have seen changes in animal distributions, changes in the [seasonal] timing of migration, changes in the food and vegetation."

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