Scientists have found that beluga whales are changing their migration routes in response to melting Arctic ice. As climate change continues to melt the ice, beluga whales will have to get creative in forming new migration routes. Some of these routes make beluga whales more vulnerable to predation. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Biology Letters.
Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) are smaller than most true whales but still reach up to 18 feet and 3,500 pounds. They live in the Arctic and use echolocation to find prey, communicate, and locate breathing holes hidden under ice. Their diets mostly consist of fish and shrimp though it varies depending on location. Beluga whales undergo long migrations each year. Scientists were unsure if melting ice and changing Arctic conditions would affect these migrations.
A team of researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute worked with citizen scientists in Canada and Alaska to help track the movements of migrating beluga whales. The team used genetic data combined with recorded sightings and satellite microwave imagery. They tracked the whales over a period of 30 years.
The team found that the beluga whales showed astonishing adaptability to the environmental changes caused by melting Arctic ice. The whales adjusted their migration routes as environmental conditions changed. The team expects that the further melting of sea ice will continue to affect the routes they take. One downside to the change in migration patterns was increased predation. The beluga whales were more vulnerable to predation by orca whales (Orcinus orca) since they ended up in areas with high orca populations.
The findings will help scientists begin to understand how beluga whales will be affected by ice melting due to climate change. While the whales seem to show adaptability, they also risk predation by orca whales by switching their migration routes. The whales also pass through different areas, possibly affecting local ecosystems that previously depended on the presence of beluga whales. Further research is needed to determine the possible effects of migration pattern changes.
O’Corry-Crowe et al. Genetic profiling links changing sea-ice to shifting beluga whale migration patterns. Biology Letters (2016).