UW News

November 5, 2020

New global archive logs changes in behavior of Arctic animals

UW News

moose in field

A moose in Denali National Park.Laura Prugh/University of Washington

The Arctic’s dramatic changes — warmer winters, earlier springs, shrinking ice and more human development — are impacting native animals. Researchers have long been observing the movements and behavior of animals in this region, but it’s been difficult to discover and access these data for meaningful collaborations.

Now scientists from around the world have established the Arctic Animal Movement Archive, an online repository for data documenting the movements of animals in the Arctic and Subarctic. With this archive, scientists can share their knowledge and collaborate to ask questions about how animals are responding to a changing climate.

So far, researchers from more than 100 universities, government agencies and conservation groups, including the University of Washington, are involved in the archive. The project currently contains over 200 projects with the movement data of more than 8,000 marine and terrestrial animals from 1991 to the present.

The global archive and several case studies on wildlife movement and behavior are described in a paper published Nov. 5 in Science. The archive project is led by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany and the Ohio State University.

“In terms of recent calls for more open science, platforms like this are a major leap forward in making valuable data discoverable and useful for researchers to address far more science questions than would otherwise be possible,” said project collaborator and co-author Laura Prugh, associate professor in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

One of the case studies, led by Prugh’s lab at the UW, looked at the movement speeds of bears, caribou, moose and wolves from 1998 to 2019 and found that all species changed their movement rates in response to climate conditions — but with no consistent pattern. This inconsistency shows that responses of large mammals to climate change in the Arctic may not be straightforward to predict.

“This work has highlighted strong changes in movement rates in response to climate, but the reasons why animals are moving more or less are still not understood,” Prugh said. “I hope the work spurs future research to understand the ‘why’ behind our findings, and whether these changes are indicative of positive or negative climate change impacts.”

Movement rates are important to track because they can influence how effective animals are at finding food and other resources, when animals encounter predators, and how much energy they expend during different seasons. Additionally, large mammals in the Arctic are adapted to cold conditions and may experience heat stress due to warming temperatures, the authors explained.

“How animals respond to variable weather conditions through movement will have interesting implications for species competition and predator-prey dynamics,” said co-author Peter Mahoney, who conducted this research as a UW postdoctoral researcher and is now a wildlife biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

To create the case study of two decades of movements of bears, caribou, moose and wolves that is included in the new archive, Prugh and Mahoney relied on data from nine national and international institutions. The case study was funded by a grant from NASA’s Arctic and Boreal Vulnerability Experiment program.

In related work, Prugh currently is leading a new NASA-funded project to understand how changing snow conditions are affecting ungulates such as deer, moose and elk, and carnivores like wolves, cougars and coyotes in northern Washington and Alaska’s Denali National Park. The UW team will examine how changes in snow affect movement and predator-prey interactions.

While hundreds of studies are already included in the animal-movement archive, the resource is continually growing as data are transmitted from animals in the field and as more researchers join. This should help to detect changes in the behavior of animals and ultimately in the entire Arctic ecosystem.

“We are also providing a much-needed baseline of past behaviors and movements,” said Sarah Davidson, project co-lead and data curator at Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior. “This can be used to improve wildlife management, address critical research questions and document changes in the Arctic for future generations.”

See a related press release from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior.