Ringed seal demography in a changing climate. Academic Article uri icon


  • Climate change is affecting species' distributions and abundances worldwide. Baseline population estimates, against which future observations may be compared, are necessary if we are to detect ecological change. Arctic sea ice ecosystems are changing rapidly and we lack baseline population estimates for many ice-associated species. Provided we can detect them, changes in Arctic marine ecosystems may be signaled by changes in indicator species such as ringed seals (Pusa hispida). Ringed seal monitoring has provided estimates of survival and fertility rates, but these have not been used for population-level inference. Using matrix population models, we synthesized existing demographic parameters to obtain estimates of historical ringed seal population growth and structure in Amundsen Gulf and Prince Albert Sound, Canada. We then formalized existing hypotheses about the effects of emerging environmental stressors (i.e., earlier spring ice breakup and reduced snow depth) on ringed seal pup survival. Coupling the demographic model to ice and snow forecasts available from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project resulted in projections of ringed seal population size and structure up to the year 2100. These projections showed median declines in population size ranging from 50% to 99%. Corresponding to these projected declines were substantial changes in population structure, with increasing proportions of ringed seal pups and adults and declining proportions of juveniles. We explored if currently collected, harvest-based data could be used to detect the projected changes in population stage structure. Our model suggests that at a present sample size of 100 seals per year, the projected changes in stage structure would only be reliably detected by mid-century, even for the most extreme climate models. This modeling process revealed inconsistencies in existing estimates of ringed seal demographic rates. Mathematical population models such as these can contribute both to understanding past population trends as well as predicting future ones, both of which are necessary if we are to detect and interpret future observations.

publication date

  • January 2019