Sea ice loss increases seal strandings

Young seals are being left out in the cold by climate change. According to a new study, shrinking ice cover is linked to more strandings of yearling harp seals.

Harp seals give birth on patches of sea ice in the northwest Atlantic, northeast Atlantic, and White Sea. Pups are weaned on the ice, then migrate north.

Over the last couple of decades, scientists have seen a troubling trend: Harp seal strandings on the U.S. East Coast are rising. But “[i]t remains unclear what is causing the apparent increase in strandings,” the study authors write in PLOS ONE.

The researchers analyzed ice cover in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in February — when many pups are born — from 1991 to 2010. They also studied records of 3,092 harp seal strandings on the East Coast over the same time period.

During years with low ice cover, the number of stranded yearlings tended to be high, the team reports. Males were more likely to be stranded than females. An early melt “will force pups into the water earlier, potentially before they are able to fully fend for themselves,” the authors write. Roberta Kwok | 23 July 2013

Source: Soulen, B.K. et al. 2013. Factors affecting harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) strandings in the northwest Atlantic. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0068779.

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