Snowy owl -- a marine species?

December 10, 2008

Wildlife satellite studies could lead to a radical re-thinking about how the snowy owl fits into the Northern ecosystem.

"Six of the adult females that we followed in a satellite study spent most of last winter far out on the Arctic sea ice," said Université Laval doctoral student Jean-Francois Therrien, who is working with Professor Gilles Gauthier as part of an International Polar Year (IPY) research project to better understand key indicator species of Canadian northern ecosystems.

The finding flabbergasted the biologists who are now curious to find out if Inuit seal hunters ever encounter the large white birds on the ice in winter darkness.

"As for what the birds were doing there, they were possibly preying on seabirds," said Gauthier. "Bird researchers at coastal field sites have observed snowy owls attacking eiders in winter. This hypothesis will be strengthened if we can match up the locations of our birds with the position of open water leads in the ice as recorded by other satellite data."

The researchers find it intriguing that the top Arctic bird predator, like the top mammal – the polar bear, is also part of the marine ecosystem. The possible implications for the species will be discussed by Therrien this Wednesday in Quebec City at the Arctic Change Conference, one of the largest international research conferences ever held on the challenges facing the north.

It was very surprising, said Therrien, how far the individual birds migrated from where they were banded on their nesting grounds on Bylot Island, north of Baffin Island.

"The satellite data showed just how dramatic the owl movements are. They flew huge distances. One owl went to Ellesmere Island, another flew straight to North Dakota and a third ended up on the eastern point of Newfoundland," he said.

The researchers say that this winter should provide many southern Canadians with a better than normal opportunity to see the magnificent birds.

"We had the largest abundance of lemmings in many years in our study area this past summer," said Gauthier. "The owls had no problems raising young, so we were informally predicting a strong outward movement of young owls this winter."

And indeed, judging by numerous newspaper reports and naturalist sightings, that prediction has already come true.

In fact, if anyone has a really ingenious idea to keep them away from airports, there is at least one airport authority that would like to hear from you. One owl-plane collision has already been reported this year at Montreal-Trudeau International Airport in Dorval.

"The support from IPY and NSERC and the advances in satellite technology have given a huge impetus to what promises to be a revolution in our understanding of this key northern species," said Gauthier. That knowledge can't come soon enough, the two researchers said.

Source: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council

Explore further: Self-folding origami: Chemical programming allows Nafion sheets to fold and refold

Related Stories

In urban Baltimore, poor neighborhoods have more mosquitoes

June 30, 2017

A new study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology reports that in Baltimore, Maryland, neighborhoods with high levels of residential abandonment are hotspots for tiger mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus). This environmental ...

Wind blows young migrant birds to all corners of Africa

May 24, 2017

Migrant birds that breed in the same area in Europe spread out across all of Africa during the northern winter. A new satellite-tracking study shows that the destination of individual birds is largely determined by the wind ...

Migratory birds arriving late to breeding grounds

May 15, 2017

New research shows climate change is altering the delicate seasonal clock that North American migratory songbirds rely on to successfully mate and raise healthy offspring, setting in motion a domino effect that could threaten ...

Recommended for you

Milky Way's origins are not what they seem

July 27, 2017

In a first-of-its-kind analysis, Northwestern University astrophysicists have discovered that, contrary to previously standard lore, up to half of the matter in our Milky Way galaxy may come from distant galaxies. As a result, ...

World gears up for electric cars despite bumps in road

July 26, 2017

Technological advances mean fossil fuel in cars could be phased out within decades but switching to electric carries its own environmental and economic concerns as more and more countries announce radical plans.

Four new short-period giant planets discovered

July 26, 2017

(Phys.org)—Astronomers have detected four new giant exoplanets as part of the Hungarian-made Automated Telescope Network-South (HATSouth) exoplanet survey. The newly found alien worlds are about the size of Jupiter, but ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Roach
not rated yet Dec 11, 2008
Damn, and I thought it was a funny joke when I thought I'd made up the submarine spotted owl in the article about the trees in Ghana.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.