Marine mammals as ecosystem sentinels

Moore, S. E.

The earth’s climate is changing, possibly at an unprecedented rate. Overall, the planet is warming, sea ice and glaciers are in retreat, sea level is rising, and pollutants are accumulating in the environment and within organisms. These clear physical changes undoubtedly affect marine ecosystems. Species dependent on sea ice, such as the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) and the ringed seal (Phoca hispida), provide the clearest examples of sensitivity to climate change. Responses of cetaceans to climate change are more difficult to discern, but in the eastern North Pacific evidence is emerging that gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are delaying their southbound migration, expanding their feeding range along the migration route and northward to Arctic waters, and even remaining in polar waters over winter—all indications that North Pacific and Arctic ecosystems are in transition. To use marine mammals as sentinels of ecosystem change, we must expand our existing research strategies to encompass the decadal and ocean-basin temporal and spatial scales consistent with their natural histories.

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Moore, S. E.. 2008. Marine mammals as ecosystem sentinels. Journal of Mammalogy 89:534-540.