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Jackie Morris's daughter on how Phillip Pullman's Northern Lights inspired her passion for Arctic marine mammals

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had an obsession with the arctic. It comes from Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’, in particular, ‘The Northern Lights’. Its actually one of the first books I read and had probably influenced my life in too many ways! Lyra was drawn by tales of armoured bears, witch clans and cliff ghasts. For me, its the vast ice plains, narwhal and beluga that haunt my dreams. We share the fascination for the aurora borealis.

The reason I study marine biology is with the hope that I will be able to conduct research on the beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) and narwhal (Monodon monoceras). For now, I only satisfy the smallest facet of this curiosity by reading as much as I can on the ecology and evolution of Arctic marine mammals, as well as speculations into the effects of receding ice on these species. Well, that and stalking Swimming in Moonlight and Paul Nicklen’s instagram feeds.

For this post, I thought I would provide a little summary of ‘Arctic Marine Mammals and Climate Change’, a paper by Moore and Hunting, 2008. Please note that this is not a review of the paper as a whole, I haven’t really included any detail on the research methods and analysis, more just the take home messages. If you would like me to include this kind of detail please let me know, I would be more than happy to include if it is something that you would like to see. Also, you will notice, the style is informal. Rest assured, if was submitting this at uni, you would probably see the ubiquitous in there at least twice. Some may even say, ubiquitously…

Climate change is a fairly well studied beast. We all know it is happening, even if He Who Must Not Be Named likes to claim it isn’t. What climate change brings is instability. This instability is of a particular problem for artic species, as they are specialists. A specialist species is one that has a very specific set of requirements in terms of environmental condition or diet. Their needs are so well suited to the environment they inhabit that they thrive there. However, that environment is changing.

Ice is essential for some arctic species. Think polar bears (Ursus maritimus), walrus’ (Odobenus rosmarus), bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) and ringed seal (Phoca hispida). They depend on the ice, wether as breeding ground, hunting ground or resting ground. It is fairly reasonable to assume that loss of arctic sea ice will be of particular detriment to these species. Then we have the ‘Ice associated’ species, the beluga, narwhal, and bowhead whale. They are ice associated as ice currently dominates in their habitat, however, it is currently unclear if it is essential for their habitat and survival.

One possible outcome is that as the ice retreats, the habitat of these arctic specialists will be opened up to more generalist species of whale who will then be able to extend their migrations further north. At present, the effects this could bring are not known. Depending on the similarity between niches of the specialists and migrating species, they may coexist, or one would outcompete the other.

Changes is global mean surface temperature are not a new thing. Pervious studies have shown that as the climate cools and ice sheets grow, animals from the north extend their range southwards, retreating as the climate warms and the ice melts. However, these changes in GMST have never before been observed at the rate at which they are currently happening. These arctic specialists are further challenged due to the fact they are what we call ‘K selected species’. K selected species tend to have relatively stable populations, mature later, produce fewer young. Because of this, they are far less resilient to rapid stresses. Things like overfishing and climate change…

Because of the difficulty in the scale of this research (limited by human lifespan), conceptual models were used to predict the resilience of arctic marine mammals to change, then to evaluate that resilience along side sea ice projections.

The conclusions drawn were that although climate change is fairly well researched, we really have very little idea what the impacts will be for these slow reproducing, long lived marine mammals. What we do know is, these impacts will not be positive. Moore and Hunting, 2008, call on the scientific community to invest in research, communication and resource management to secure the future of what they refer to as a pristine habitat.

On reading this paper, I had my own thoughts, and once again, it comes back to the idea that we need to do more. I really don’t have all the answers when it comes to this, and am far from perfect, but I really feel like as we come to the end of 2017, we really are entering the age of the individual. Each one of us has never had as much of a voice as we have now, so use it. Share your opinions, and the things that matter to you. Maybe you drive less. Walk more. Buy less. Shop local. Avoid plastics. Reuse things. Less meat. More veggies. We could all do more. I guess the time is kinda now. Like, maybe now or never.

Moore, S.E. and Huntington, H.P., 2008. Arctic marine mammals and climate change: impacts and resilience. Ecological Applications,18(sp2).

Paul Nicklen, 2017, Narwhal, JPEG, Instagram (, Accessed 18/11/17.

Swimming in Moonlight, 2017, Beluga, JPEG, Instagram (, Accessed 18/11/17.

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