Dr. Emily Choy (McGill University)
Marine predators as sentinels of environmental change in Arctic ecosystems
March 4th 12:30-1:30pm ET
Arctic ecosystems are undergoing rapid change, and long-lived top predators are considered sentinels of the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems. Beaufort Sea beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) and thick-billed murres (Uria lomvia) in northern Hudson Bay have experienced long-term shifts in prey species and declines in inferred growth rates, believed to be the result of environmental changes. In partnership with Inuvialuit communities, we examined inter-annual variation and environmental factors affecting prey, body condition, and physiology of Beaufort Sea beluga whales. Body condition of belugas was positively correlated with myoglobin, hemoglobin concentrations, and % hematocrit, with lower total body O2 stores in whales with lower body condition. The relationship between body condition and O2 storage capacity in whales may represent a positive feedback mechanism, in which environmental changes resulting in decreased body condition impair foraging ability. To examine the impacts of climate- induced prey shifts on the energetics of seabirds, heart rate was examined as a proxy for O2 consumption in murres and black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), and were calibrated with GPS-accelerometers to classify behaviours and activity rate. Finally, we examined the effects of Arctic warming on murre physiology. In response to increasing temperatures, murres exhibited limited heat tolerance and low ability to dissipate heat, with one of the lowest evaporative cooling efficiencies recorded in birds. These results highlight the various impacts of climate change on marine predators and their broader implications on Arctic ecosystems.