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Small birds, big effects: the little auk transforms high Arctic ecosystems

February 15, 2017

Little Auk colony on the Cape York Peninsula, Greenland. Image: P Lyngs

The North Water Polynya is a large area of open sea in Baffin Bay between Greenland and Canada. The area is the largest polynya – an area of sea that remains ice free year-round, though surrounded by sea ice – in the world, and is one of the most biologically productive marine habitats in the Arctic Ocean.

Ecosystems on the Greenland coastline of the North Water Polynya are transformed – both positively and negatively – by nutrients brought back to land from the open sea by a tiny ‘ecosystem engineer’ bird, the little auk, according to a new study.

An estimated 30 million pairs of little auk travel to the North Water Polynya to breed each summer. At sea, they feed on nutrient-rich crustaceans called copepods. When they reach their breeding colonies on Greenland, the nutrients are largely excreted onto the land as guano.


The North Water Polynya. The study took place between Savissivik and Siorapaluk on the Greenland coast. Image: Wikipedia / NASA commons.

The impacts on the ‘fertilised’ Greenlandic landscape are significant. Areas of land outside bird colonies are largely barren with little vegetation, as is common in environments at 76º North. However, areas within bird colonies have lush vegetation and large numbers of grazing animals such as muskox and geese.

“Our study found that the little auk acts as an ecosystem engineer across a large area of North-West Greenland. The colonies stretch over a 400 km range and up to 10 km inland so a very large area is affected. This creates highly productive oases in an otherwise rather barren landscape” says researcher Thomas Davidson from Aarhus University, a co-author of the new study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, which also involved MARS aquatic scientist Erik Jeppesen.

The research team undertook analyses of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the coastal Greenland environment to track the flow of the marine-derived nutrients from sea to land. The research involved limnology, aquatic ecology, isotope biochemistry and bird tracking methods, and is part of the interdisciplinary NOW-project with anthropologists, archaeologists and local Inuit hunters.


Musk ox and their young grazing on the lush green landscapes created by the little auk colonies. Image: P. Lyngs

Freshwater ecosystems, on the other hand, were negatively affected by the little auk’s ecosystem engineering. The bird’s guano is very high in nitrogen which, in addition to acting as a fertiliser, can cause the acidification of freshwater. One Greenlandic lake close to a colony had a water pH 3.4, which is more acidic than acid rain.

As a result, lakes and rivers affected by little auk colonies can support few invertebrates and no fish. As there are few grazing aquatic organisms able to survive in the acidic conditions, the nutrient-rich lakes are often green and eutrophic. The presence of little auk colonies is therefore a significant stressor on Greenlandic lakes and rivers.

This reduction in freshwater biodiversity caused by little auk colonies is opposite to the efffect of similar transfers of marine nutrients by migrating Pacific salmon. Numerous studies have shown that migrating salmon significantly increase biodiversity and ecosystem productivity in their spawning rivers in North America and Asia, both through their post-spawning decomposition and as prey to predators like bears.


A local hunter from Savvissik waits with his net for a flock of little auk to pass by. Image: K. Johansen

Thomas Davidson summarises the study, “On a broad scale we sampled over 30 locations, both with and without bird colonies along the 400km coastline of the North Water Polynya, from Savissivik in the south to Siorapaluk in the north and demonstrated that both aquatic and terrestrial productivity is much higher in bird colony areas. We found that at least 85% of off all terrestrial and aquatic biomass was fuelled by nutrients brought to land by the little auk.”

Climate change may alter the ecosystem dynamics of coastal Greenland in the future. During the breeding season, little auks depend on nutrient-rich copepod species which live in cold sea waters. It is predicted that little auk populations will decline in response to the ongoing warming of the Arctic. If the little auk population declines, a significant shift in the Greenlandic coastal landscape around the North Water Polynya is likely to result.


Little Auks gathering on the stones before descending into their nests or before setting out to sea to feed and collect food for their young. Image: S. Wetterich

Whilst this may mean less productive terrestrial ecosystems, it could be that lakes and rivers become less acidic, and become more habitable for aquatic life. However, a new stressor – climate change – will likely have significant effects on Greenlandic freshwater ecosystems as the effects of the little auks recede.

The new study sheds new light on interactions between marine, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in the Arctic, and reminds us that the impacts of future climate change are likely to be distributed in potentially unpredictable and surprising ways across inter-connected environments.

González-Bergonzoni, I et al (2017) Small birds, big effects: the little auk (Alle alle) transforms high Arctic ecosystems, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 284: 20162572.

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