Look: 3 unexpected creatures solve an Arctic food chain mystery

Atlantic cod at the North Pole? It's more likely than you think.

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Polar bears, seals, and whales might be the first creatures that come to mind when you think of the Arctic Ocean.

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But much of the polar ecosystem remains a mystery.

It can be easy to focus on what lives atop the frozen ice sheets, but what swims beneath them is also crucial.

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Pauline Snoeijs Leijonmalm

To their surprise, researchers recently came across three ocean-dwellers living in the Arctic that aren’t known to travel that far north.

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Their findings were published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

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From 2019 to 2020, scientists spent a year surveying the Central Arctic Ocean — a section of the sea that crosses over the North Pole.

During a fishing expedition, they unexpectedly pulled three Atlantic cod from below the surface of the ice, about 350 to 400 meters down.

Pauline Snoeijs Leijonmalm

Pauline Snoeijs Leijonmalm

Cod, which are normally coastal fish, aren’t known to swim this deep into the sea. They’ve never been recorded living as far north as the Arctic Ocean.

The research team analyzed the fish and determined that they had traveled up from breeding grounds near Norway. They survived in the Arctic for up to six years.


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“Even if the Atlantic cod does not have its own central Arctic stock, this research shows that it can survive. A small number of individuals seem to find enough food to stay healthy for a longer time.”

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The research team also spotted two types of squid — the Atlantic armhook and Atlantic lanternfish — in the Arctic Ocean.

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While the fish and squid exist in small numbers and prefer to dwell within a warmer layer of the Arctic Ocean, they represent an important part of the region’s food chain.

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“The availability of small and even some larger fish in the Atlantic water layer could explain why seals, walrus, and polar bear can be found even at the North Pole.”

While it’s an important discovery for the understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, the researchers caution that squid and cod probably don’t maintain large populations at such high latitudes.


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Historically, the Central Arctic has been covered completely in ice.

Only in recent decades has the ice begun to melt and break apart, making it more accessible by boat — potentially attracting future commercial fishing ventures.

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While there hasn’t been any commercial fishing in the Central Arctic, nine nations preemptively signed a treaty in 2018 to protect the region from such endeavors.

“Usually, exploitation of newly accessible natural resources tends to precede scientific research and management measures, and internationally shared fish stocks in high seas are especially prone to overexploitation.”

-Snoeijs Leijonmalm, in a statement.


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