A study published recently in the journal Scientific Reports shows that the little auk can adapt to different environmental conditions to find prey for itself and its offspring. This flexibility makes the species robust to climatic change, but only to a certain degree – the rate of temperature increase that we see today will inevitably lead to deterioration of the foraging habitats, and in time, the species will have to move northwards. The only problem is that there is no land left to inhabit.

The Arctic is warming faster than any other part of the Earth, and wild animals in this environment are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of the ongoing climate change. They can respond by either migrating to a more suitable habitat or adapting to the changes. One way to predict a species’ response to warming is to model its current distribution in order to identify important features that shape the species’ niche. Such work has been conducted on little auks on Svalbard through a Polish-Norwegian project collaboration. The researchers have studied satellite data, diet samples and GPS tracks of little auks breeding in Hornsund, Magdalenefjorden and on Bjørnøya to describe the characteristics of little auk feeding habitats and to assess the suitability of these habitats under two scenarios of sea surface temperature (SST) increase in July: +1 and +2 °C, respectively.

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Little auks on Svalbard show remarkably flexible foraging behavior, but they have nowhere to go as temperature increase threatens their food resources.
Photo: Sébastien Descamps

Little auks breeding on Bjørnøya collected their prey (zooplankton) in warmer waters than the birds from the two high-Arctic colonies. The distribution of travel distances from colony to feeding area varied among all three colonies. Little auks in Hornsund collected prey relatively close to the colony, whereas the birds breeding on Bjørnøya and in Magdalenefjorden foraged in both nearby and distant locations. Distant feeding locations were characterized by a lower SST than the nearby locations. These results indicate that little auk has a flexible foraging behavior, is able to exploit different feeding habitats and is thus resilient to moderate environmental change. Nevertheless, according to the article, the future looks bleak for this species on Svalbard. Models predict that, in time, important feeding habitats for little auks will deteriorate due to the ongoing temperature increase, which in turn will have negative impacts both for the little auk populations and other organisms in the Arctic ecosystem.

Contact person: Hallvard Strøm, Norwegian Polar Institute