small packages

Tiny animals provide big Arctic data

This insight will be crucial for conservation.

Hogan Films and Teton Raptor Center

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The Arctic tundra is home to thousands of unique animals, including caribou, golden eagles, and polar bears.

These animals’ lives are being turned upside down by climate change, but exactly how, is a tricky question for scientists.

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Climate change is warming the Arctic and melting its ice sheet, but Gil Bohrer, co-author on a new study in Science and professor at Ohio State University, tells Inverse that learning how this actually affects animals’ lives isn’t easy.

“Animal movement data is hard to collect. [To study] Arctic animals a team must travel to the Arctic to catch the animals and mount the tags… which is expensive because the tags are not cheap.”

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Extinction and loss of habitat are big concerns when it comes to climate change affecting the region, but it’s also important to track tiny changes in animal behavior as well.

Dominique Berteaux, Université du Québec à Rimouski]

These patterns can help scientists better understand how these animals are adapting and if behavior, like competition over food, is changing.

Andrew Dixon

Bohrer and colleagues created the Arctic Animal Movement Archive (AAMA.) The database contains millions of data points from 207 tracking studies that looked at over 8,000 individual animals.

Roland Kays, NCSU & NC Museum of Natural Sciences

To show how their database can provide a powerful look into the daily lives of these animals, the researchers describe three case studies.

Hogan Films and Teton Raptor Center

Golden Eagles:

Researchers looked at tracking data from 100 golden eagles between 1993 and 2017 to see how warming weather affected migratory patterns. They found that young eagles migrating north were arriving earlier during warmer winters.

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Such behavioral changes could only be identified through decades of data, say researchers, and may have implications for breeding success.

Caribou:

Scientists looked at 17 years of tracking data from 900 female caribou to study breeding behavior. They found that certain caribou were having babies earlier and earlier — in line with warming trends.

Kyle Joly

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, say researchers, but it also may lead to complications later on, such as higher levels of food competition between species

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Bears, caribou, moose, and wolves (oh my!):

A final case study looked at 21-years of movement data and found that different species moved faster or slower depending on the weather. Over time, this asynchronous behavior could affect predator-prey dynamics, say researchers.

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In the future, the authors hope that other researchers from around the world will continue to add to the database so that scientists can learn even more from these tiny animals’ big data.

Read more nature stories here.

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