Science Spotlight

The aim of the proposed research program is to quantitatively measure and report currently unknown baseline health and physiological parameters as well as define a suite of physiological thresholds for three ice-dependent Arctic seals: ringed (Pusa hispida), bearded (Erignathus barbatus), and spotted (Phoca largha) seals.

Ringed, bearded, and spotted seals are species of particular concern as a result of rapid sea ice loss in the Arctic. Conservation status reviews have been conducted by the National Marine Mammal Laboratory to summarize available knowledge, identify areas of data deficiency, and attempt to predict and evaluate the risks of significant population declines (Boveng et al., 2009; Cameron et al., 2010; Kelly et al., 2010). These reports suggest that we must obtain new information about basic biology and physiology in order to better understand the response of ice-dependent seals to predicted climate change. The recent listing of bearded seals as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act highlight the need for more and better information about their biological requirements. In addition, recent unusual mortality events (UMEs) among ice-dependent seals and walruses in Alaska have brought to light gaps in our knowledge of these Arctic species and further emphasized the need for species-specific measures of health and physiology.

The PHOCAS research program was designed to provide fundamental information about ringed, bearded, and spotted seals to scientists, resource managers, and subsistence communities. This information includes baseline health parameters and measures of body condition, metabolism, molt, and diving capacities across a range of seasonal and environmental conditions. These data are fundamental to predictive modeling efforts and should improve understanding of species-specific population-level responses to climate change. Given that such information cannot be readily obtained from free-ranging Arctic seals, the proposed research with captive seals enables novel and relevant physiological comparisons to be made both within and across species. Longitudinal studies of trained ice seals are ongoing at Long Marine Laboratory and the Alaska SeaLife Center, and long-term research objectives include:

(1) Describe baseline hematology and other species-typical indicators of health,

(2) Report patterns of food consumption, physical growth, and body condition as a function of physiological, developmental, and environmental conditions,

(3) Determine resting metabolic rates and evaluate how they change with age, season, and physiological state,

(4) Document and describe the timing, duration, and progression of molt, as well as associated changes in haul-out patterns

(5) Determine species-specific blood and muscle oxygen storage capacities and assess physiological limits to diving and foraging. 


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