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Marine mammals sending a clear message about climate change

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Meetings of the international marine mammal community always have a great vibe about them and the recent 22nd biennial conference in Halifax, Canada was true to form. From thought-provoking plenary sessions to enthusiastic hallway conversations, everyone was excited about their work and sharing it with others.

Head of ringed seal above the water. Blomsterhalvøya, Spitsbergen (Svalbard) arctic archipelago, Norway.
© WWF-Canon / Sindre Kinnerød

At this year’s conference, there was a clear message:  climate change is affecting wildlife and we need to act now to preserve it.

The changes scientists described are dramatic. For instance, killer whales are moving further into the Arctic because there is now less sea ice off Alaska and Canada. A chilling animation of successive GPS locations on a map over multiple days showed killer whales patrolling in and out of bays and forcing bowhead whales and narwhals to take shelter under ice.

National Geographic: Orcas attack a juvenile bowhead whale

Ringed seals – the main prey of polar bears – on Svalbard (Norway) have abandoned the once-frozen sea ice to rest on glaciers. Polar bears will need to learn a whole new aquatic hunting strategy to catch them. To add to that challenge, male polar bears in Western Hudson Bay are getting shorter in stature. Some of these shorter males seem to not have any luck with the ladies – fathering no cubs over their whole lifetime.

Polar bear, Kara Sea © Dmitry Ryabov / WWF-Russia

New research using small underwater microphones fitted to narwhals found that they communicate with one another near the water’s surface, using “clicks”. This information is crucial for understanding the impacts of ship engine noise on narwhals, which masks the voices of whales and dolphins in other parts of the world. Ships were also found to change how narwhals behave – when large carriers were present, scientists observed narwhals swimming more quickly, closer to shore and even moving out of the area.

Narwhals usually travel in small pods of several individuals. Photo: Clive Tesar / WWF

The science presented in Halifax builds on our understanding of the new pressures that animals are facing in a warming Arctic. While their future may not yet be crystal clear, what is clear is that we must do everything we can to give them the best chance to cope with their changing world.

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