The iconic polar bear is often used as a symbol of the way in which marine wildlife is being affected by climate change. The risk with this is that we come to feel detached from the issue. Climate change becomes something that is happening in a far away place and on which we don’t really have a grasp. This simply isn’t true. Climate change is impacting British wildlife as we speak.
As mentioned in yesterday’s blog, the sea’s rising temperature is thought to affect the composition of communities (i.e. which species are present in an area). Amongst other things, this could have massive implications in terms of food availability. For example, if warmer waters bring with them a new species which eats the same thing as the “native” species then competition for food could increase. In addition, if waters get warmer, species which prefer colder waters will tend to move away.
This type of change is already being observed in North-West Scotland. Analyses of stranding records in recent years has demonstrated significant increases in the number of common dolphins (a warm water species). In contrast, white-beaked dolphin strandings (a cold water species) have decreased.
The implications of these findings are multiple. Not only have common dolphins increased their range but white-beaked dolphins seem to have reduced theirs, becoming restricted to the more northerly cooler waters. The problem with this is that white-beaked dolphins prefer shallow waters. In effect, this means that their range has not simply been shifted slightly northwards, it has actually been reduced as they are pushed closer and closer to the edge of the continental shelf. Further to this, these changes are happening on a such a large scale that it is becoming really important to take climate change into account when planning for Marine Protected Areas, further complicating an already complex issue!
When considering the issue on a species-specific scale it becomes clear that there is lot of work left to do in gathering all the information needed to effectively conserve our cetaceans. Changes are happening so fast that we need almost constant monitoring. This is where you come in!! One of the most visible effects of climate change is where the animals are so if you see a cetacean, report it to us. All records help us to build a picture, year on year, of where each species has been seen and how they are being affected. To find out more about how to report your sightings go to our sightings page.
From Lambert, E. et al (2011) Quantifying likely cetacean range shifts in response to global climatic change: implications for conservation strategies in a changing world. Endangered Species Research. 15: 205–222