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Author(s) of the publication: Vyacheslav ROZHNOV

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by Vyacheslav ROZHNOV, RAS Corresponding Member, Severtsev Institute of Ecological and Evolutionary Problems, deputy director, Moscow, Russia

The natural environment of the Far North is in great danger, what with the ongoing exploration and development of mineral resources in the arctic regions and the shrinking ice cover. How will all that tell on arctic animals? Can we minimize the negative consequences? We cannot answer these questions without reliable information on the present condition of all the various animal populations out there-their propagation, number and seasonal migrations. To find out, our reporter Yevgeniya Sidorova approached a competent expert, Dr. Vyacheslav Rozhnov, who is also in charge of the RAS Standing Expedition involved with animals entered in the Red Data Book of the RF, and other particularly significant species of Russia's fauna. We follow with the transcript of the interview.

Sea hare (APHYSIA). Ulyan Bay, Western part of the Sea of Okhotsk. July 2009. Photo, Olga Shpak

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The RAS Standing Expedition is studying certain arctic animal species. It has programs for the beluga, or white whale, and the polar (white) bear, for example. What is your greatest concern?

- Climate warming in the arctic regions entails certain consequences. Water is getting warmer, and ice receding to enable better passage through the Northern Sea Route off the Arctic Ocean's coast. There are greater opportunities for the exploration of these regions. New petroleum and natural gas deposits are being tapped. This problem recurred time and again at the Second International Forum held in Archangel in 2012, and it is going to become the central issue at the next multinational get-together of experts this year.

-Is it possible to evaluate changes related to climate warming over the last few decades on the basis of the available literary data on the migrations of sea animals, the white whale in particular, and your latest data?

-The Arctic is a region hard of access and least studied therefore. Yet the first zoological observations were

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actually begun at the close of the 19th century as whale hunters arrived there. In the 1920s and 1930s, that is in the Soviet years, systematic investigations were carried out in Taimyr and Yamal. The populations of birds and mammalians were studied in the north of the Far East. In this respect we have a good research base to proceed from. The white whale, too, was an object of interest, to whalers for one. But zoologists pursued other objectives.

There is no detailed information in the 20th-century literature on the migrations of white whales. Only fragmentary bits of evidence on their whereabouts, and rule-of-thumb estimates of their population number. It was hard to learn how they used their living space, and about their migration pathways and cycles. Only now corresponding data have come within our reach thanks to implanted ARGOS satellite radio beacons.

It is very important to track the white whale migrating over vast distances. This animal is found along the entire arctic coast. There must be some causes we do not know yet in full to make it migrate. To begin with, we should identify its migration routes related to abiotic factors like water temperature, ice and sea streams, and those related to the presence of fish, its food.

In August 2009 we began to observe these mammals in the Okhotsk and White Seas. We already had data on the Far Eastern region, since several white whales had been tagged in keeping with the project on the present status of their Amur population (Sea of Okhotsk, Russia). Here our research center and the Utrish Dolphinarium were supported by the Hong Kong Oceanarium and the Georgia (USA) Aquarium. As it turned out, white whale migration routes concurred in different years. But what factors determine that? We noticed that after a long stay next to the island of Sakhalin white whales tear off all of a sudden and head north, into colder waters. Usually they keep to the edge of ice, where water is cooler. So a temperature change could be the go signal. The same cause probably made White Sea whales keep moving. Yet this is not a direct action factor-fish migrations are likewise important, for fish is the basic food to whales. We should learn above all how fish resources were distributed during the years of observations. Such data, however, are not within everybody's reach, we must inquire after such information at respective research institutes.

-Do white whales migrate in large families? You know something about their kinship relationships, do you?

-The white whale is a gregarious animal living in herds or groups. Quite a few animals move simultaneously the same way. But it is hard to specify the structure of their community. To identify the presence of kinship relationships, we resort to genetic analysis. In white whales (in contrast to tigers*, for example) we have not yet determined the gene loci in the chromosome that could indicate their genetic related-ness.

-Last year members of the RAS Standing Expedition were aboard the research ship Mikhail Somov that sailed along the Northern Sea Route. Any new information?

* See: V. Rozhnov, "How to Save the Amur Tiger?", Science in Russia, No. 5, 2010.--Ed.

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-One major objective to us is to take stock of the population numbers of various species. We are unable to extend such counts to the entire arctic territory, but we are doing what we can to fill in the gaps. First, we spot areas where animals are staying at the moment, and then count them. The Northern Sea Route is remarkable not only because white whales are found there. This is also the habitat of still another object of our arctic program, the polar bear. It is the habitat of other sea mammalians, seals among them. During the seal-hunting season we kept count of the seal population. We also made a count of the population of gray whales. Now that the hunting of these animals is stopped, we are no longer taking a count.

-How do you spot congregations of animals of interest to you?

-We make inquiries. We poll the staffs of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. We poll the workers of weather stations, oilmen as well as the local population. The information obtained from the lay provides clues none the less. Boarding a research vessel sailing along the arctic coast, our experts both register places where sea animals are present and count their numbers right away. This is a fairly trustworthy method. We count the animals, watch them through field glasses and photograph their congregations. Yet we get the most copious pieces of evidence by means of aerial surveys.

Would you specify?

-We can organize such surveys wherever there are airfields. For instance, we rent an An-38 plane in the Khabarovsk-based squadron. We install special-purpose equipment on board enabling observations: replace windows with blisters, or concave glasses (three on each side) so that we might look down and take shots. In-flight documentary photo- and video shooting is nonstop, also with the use of IR vision devices. Apart from beasts and birds, our main objects, we keep tabs on hunting tools. We register pollution spots, sea-ships, blooming areas, and other things.

As a rule we hug the coast, just 300 to 1,000 m away, at an altitude of 400 meters. We cover a band about 3 km wide. Then we evaluate our data. The RAS Standing Expedition makes such surveys in the Okhotsk, White and Barents Seas.

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We are also making use of space photos in our counts. Yet most important here is the resolving power of a snapshot. Say, if the area under a polar bear in it is larger than a pixel, we are able to make a count of such animals. Two researchers of our Institute and also of the Standing Expedition, engineer Nikita Platonov and biologist Ilya Mordvintsev (both doctoral candidates), have designed methods of space photos analysis, and so now we are able to spot the whereabouts of dolphins, seals and polar bears, and count their numbers.

Now back to our voyage along the Northern Sea Route. Our specialists kept tabs on the presence of all sea mammals, including those not covered by the current programs. Walruses, for instance. These occur in three subspecies-the Pacific, Laptev Sea and Atlantic. The population of the latter two is shrinking, and they have been listed in the Red Book of the Russian Federation.

-So there is no program for the walrus. And yet the seal is now the object of close attention of the RAS Standing Expedition. Why?

-The seal competes with the white whale for food, and simultaneously it is a food for the polar bear. These arctic symbols are the vertices of the two food pyramids: the white whale is the end consumer of food in the sea, and the polar bear, on the ice. We can judge about the marine and the "icy" part of the arctic ecosystem by the condition of their populations.

That is to say, the data on the seal, the white whale and the polar bear are indispensable to visualizing in full the present and the future of their habitation medium?

-It is the job of research scientists to piece together elements of the great mosaic picture of the Arctic-a living organism still not studied well enough. Far from it. We took up seals and found that rather big changes were taking place in their life. But let's proceed in good turn, point by point.

Formerly some seal species were believed to cub on shore, while others, on ice. Today such postulates are verified. Be that as it may, their life is closely connected with ice. Hunting, these excellent swimmers keep along the ice edge where it is more convenient to dive for fish. The sea depth in the zone of their activity used to vary from 50 to 200 meters.

That's what it was. Now, with the ice receding farther into the sea, the depth of water is increasing; its temperature is likewise up, with the composition and amount of the available food changing accordingly. Warmed by the heating air, the surface of seal rookeries thaws to make pools of water, with virtually no dry place to lie on. The seal cubs sucking their mother's milk before diving in have to do that ahead of time. Exposed to cold, the sucklings contract pneumonia and die. This situation is menacing the seal population as a whole.

You said that polar bears hunt for seals. How is the changing climatic situation telling on their mode of life?

-Polar bears live on ice, but they always breed on dry land. Their breeding grounds are found on the Wrangel Island, in Chukotka, and in Franz Joseph Land. Before leaving their nurseries, the kids should grow up. Since the ice is receding from the coast ever farther, the ursine families have to stay on dry land all through the hot season.

Out in the sea, the polar bear feeds on seals. But now it has to look for small fry, which a pretty poor substitute for the dainty. Yet another ration, the carrion-corpses of land animals like the deer, walrus, or seal. So polar bears have to feed on the dead or decaying flesh. How will this change of diet tell on their condition? We get busy with that problem-studying their diseases, what intestinal parasites occur in their excrements. In fact, every kind of helminthes, or worms, common to the brown and Himalayan bear, is found in their arctic counterparts. With rare exceptions.

We proceed as follows. Immobilizing an animal to put on a satellite-monitored collar, we take a blood count to see what kinds of pathogens like Chlamydia, microbes and other agents might be present there. Taking fur samples, our experts assay them for mercury, an indicator of environmental pollution. Our colleagues-Canadian, Norwegian and American zoologists-have mapped territories in Spitzbergen and Canada for this pollutant. The presence of mercury in the fur of the polar bear there has proved to be higher than in Franz Joseph land and on the Wrangel Island.

The Arctic Ocean became a radioactive waste dump long ago. So we have begun looking for radioactive substances-radioactive cobalt for one-in tissues of animals, in their hair in particular. We are using maps kindly provided to us by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Which means that zoological research data make it possible to hammer out a tactics toward the protection of endangered arctic species and see what man should beware of.

-In this particular case food chains are highly important. Working together with us in the Barents Sea region are our Norwegian colleagues. They are also

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Mercury in the fur of polar bears in different parts of the Arctic.

concerned about the presence of mercury and other harmful substances in the tissues of the polar bear and the white whale, a mammal that feeds on fish. Such studies have a special significance for the Russian Far East: a good many marine mammals are hunting for fish spawning off the shore of Japan where a nuclear station was damaged by an earthquake in 2011. But Norwegians, too, eat that fish. Consequently, we should consider such hazards and get down to this problem. We have outlined our stand to officials of the federal Ministry for Emergency Situations and met their full understanding.

As to rare species, our aim is to build a scientific base for their protection and file corresponding recommendations to the federal Ministry for Natural Resources and Ecology. What with the forthcoming development of raw materials in the arctic regions, we should know how to handle an animal population, its movements and behavior. So we should know its ways.

Workers employed at arctic gas deposits encounter problems in their dealings with the polar bear that, due to changing natural conditions, has to stay on dry land instead of ice. Searching for food, this beast invades settlements and threatens their inhabitants, interfering with their work. Officials of oil and gas companies have asked us to help them out.

To begin with, we should learn the cause of such encroachments-most likely, the beasts are attracted by food wastes. So the first tip-off: do not throw the food waste near your homes and workplaces. Next, learn from the experience of the aboriginals. For instance, the Chukchi are now collecting corpses of walruses next to their communities and carry them to safe distances to get the polar bear feeding on carrion to stay away and not molest people. Since man is mostly to blame for such mishaps, he ought to change his ways accordingly.


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Vyacheslav ROZHNOV, THE MOSAIC ARCTIC, A LIVING ORGANISM // Chisinau: Library of Moldova (LIBRARY.MD). Updated: 08.10.2021. URL: https://library.md/m/articles/view/THE-MOSAIC-ARCTIC-A-LIVING-ORGANISM (date of access: 19.10.2021).

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