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Ecol Appl. 2008 Mar;18(2 Suppl):S97-125.

Quantifying the sensitivity of Arctic marine mammals to climate-induced habitat change.

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  • 1Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, Box 570, 3900 Nuuk, Greenland.


We review seven Arctic and four subarctic marine mammal species, their habitat requirements, and evidence for biological and demographic responses to climate change. We then describe a pan-Arctic quantitative index of species sensitivity to climate change based on population size, geographic range, habitat specificity, diet diversity, migration, site fidelity, sensitivity to changes in sea ice, sensitivity to changes in the trophic web, and maximum population growth potential (R(max)). The index suggests three types of sensitivity based on: (1) narrowness of distribution and specialization in feeding, (2) seasonal dependence on ice, and (3) reliance on sea ice as a structure for access to prey and predator avoidance. Based on the index, the hooded seal, the polar bear, and the narwhal appear to be the three most sensitive Arctic marine mammal species, primarily due to reliance on sea ice and specialized feeding. The least sensitive species were the ringed seal and bearded seal, primarily due to large circumpolar distributions, large population sizes, and flexible habitat requirements. The index provides an objective framework for ranking species and focusing future research on the effects of climate change on Arctic marine mammals. Finally, we distinguish between highly sensitive species and good indicator species and discuss regional variation and species-specific ecology that confounds Arctic-wide generalization regarding the effects of climate change.

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