Warming landscape triggers northward habitat shift

 Much of the North Slope of Alaska is characterized by low, sweeping tundra hills, and a complete absence of trees. (Creative Commons photo by Paxson Woelber)
Much of the North Slope of Alaska is characterized by low, sweeping tundra hills, and a complete absence of trees. (Creative Commons photo by Paxson Woelber)

For years scientists have documented changes in Alaska’s vegetation caused by a warmer climate. Researchers are now seeing animals establish new habitats on the North Slope in response to the altered landscape.

Ken Tape is an Arctic ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He says his research often takes him to the North Slope. He’s reported on how shrubs in the region have responded to warmer temperatures and longer summers. They’re thriving — growing taller and moving across the landscape along rivers. It occurred to him those conditions favor moose and, as it turns out, hares. He says that got him thinking.

“’If this change is as dramatic as we think it is, if we look back in the past, maybe there won’t be any moose in these shrub patches.’ And, as it turns out, that’s exactly what I found when I started looking through the literature: A century ago they weren’t there,” Tape said.

Tape says his research, which appears in the journal Global Change Biology, focused on the hares because hunting presents complications when modeling moose populations.

Nevertheless, it’s clear where there were few or no animals in the region before, now they have clearly established habitats. Complete with predators, says Tape, since lynx seem to have followed the hares.

“We sometimes use the phrase ‘formerly boreal wildlife’ expanding along these riparian corridors, because, up until recently, it’s true …. Snowshoe hare, moose … those were strictly boreal species,” he said.

Tape said it’s remarkable how quickly the new habitats were developed. He says it will interesting to see what happens over longer time scales.

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