In Arctic research, a few species are stealing the show | Polarjournal

A skilled hunter — and a gatherer of research attention. A quarter of all research deals with polar bears, while other species, which are essential for the oceans, are largely under-represented (Photo: Michael Wenger)

A review of the research on large Arctic maritime species shows that just a few species and just a few areas are getting most of the attention

Research on the Arctic’s large maritime animals is largely focused on the most charismatic or profitable species, leaving entire species understudied, despite their behaviour potentially offering valuable insights into how the region’s ecosystem is being disrupted by global warming, a recent paper has concluded. 

The research, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, reviewed the research about Arctic marine megafauna published during the past five years. It found that polar bears were the subject of one in four papers, while also arguing that fully understanding the effects of global warming on the region would require more information about other types of animals, including size, diet, range and exposure to pollutants and other harmful agents.

Rossia palpebrosa and Gonatus fabricii (pictured here) are the most abundant species of squid in the Arctic, but only two studies have looked at them in the past five years (Photo: Noaa)

To arrive at this conclusion, the authors, oceanographer and Senior CNRS scientist David Grémillet and Sébastien Descamps from the Norwegian Polar Institute, reviewed the studies relating to the Arctic megafauna (fish, jellyfish, squid, seabirds and marine mammals) published over the past five years.

Covering 250 publications, the review revealed that 36% of the studies focused on fish. In particular, Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and Arctic cod (Boreogadus saida). The second most studied animal is the polar bear (Ursus maritimus). It is the subject of 20% of all published studies. Conversely, very little research has been carried out on cephalopods. The two most abundant species in the Arctic, Rossia palpebrosa and Gonatus fabricii, have been the subject of just two case studies. As for birds, it is the Brunnich’s guillemot that gets all the attention; it was the subject of half of all papers related to seabirds.

The explanation for the discrepancy lies in the value placed on each species. “These species have been the most studied because they are either of high commercial value (Atlantic cod), play a key role in the functioning of ecosystems (polar cod) or are emblematic of the Arctic (polar bear),” the paper said.

The authors also found a strong geographic bias. US waters off Alaska total 136 studies while only six were carried out in Russian waters. “[T]he first important conclusion of our review is that the existing knowledge on the impacts of climate change on [megafauna] is extremely biassed with respect to the species studied and the geographical coverage,” the paper said.

Marine mammals and Alaska are popular in scientific publications, while cephalopods and Russia are largely under-represented (Illustration: David Grémillet and Sébastien Descamps)

However, research could progress further thanks to modern technologies for large-scale remote data collection, such as satellites, drones, biologging devices or computers that can record, store and transmit observations.

The authors also see citizen-science initiatives as a way to collect information about species distribution and abundance as well as other areas they label “scientific blind spots” . Such an approach could also contribute to empowering indigenous communities and including them in scientific research.

The paper presents ten research avenues that focus both on Arctic marine megafauna itself as well as on the tools that would enable research to be carried out in an area as vast and inhospitable as the Arctic, including interaction with local populations. 

D. Grémillet and S. Descamps: Ecological impacts of climate change on Arctic marine megafauna, Trends in Ecology & Evolution

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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