Polar Biology

, Volume 32, Issue 8, pp 1137–1145 | Cite as

Resource partitioning by sympatric pagophilic seals in Alaska: monitoring effects of climate variation with fatty acids

  • Margaret H. Cooper
  • Suzanne M. Budge
  • Alan M. Springer
  • Gay Sheffield
Original Paper


Four species of pagophilic phocid seals in the Western Arctic—bearded (Erignathus barbatus), ringed (Phoca hispida), ribbon (Phoca fasciata), and spotted (Phoca largha)—are particularly vulnerable to arctic warming trends. Documenting diet composition over time is one way in which the flexibility of a species, in the face of broad ecosystem changes, can be measured. Because the fatty acid (FA) composition of depot lipids has long been known to reflect diet, we analysed the FA composition of blubber samples collected from bearded (n = 30), ringed (n = 15), ribbon (n = 32) and spotted seals (n = 24). All animals were taken near Little Diomede Island in May and June 2003, providing a unique opportunity to study interspecies differences with minimal effects of spatial and temporal variation. Bearded seal FA composition was significantly different from all other seals (P < 0.001 in all cases), ringed seal FA composition was significantly different from that of both ribbon and spotted seals (P < 0.001), but ribbon and spotted seal FA compositions could not be distinguished from each other. Overall, the blubber FA compositions of ribbon, ringed and spotted seals implied diets dominated by pelagic prey. Inferences we made about current diets of bearded and ringed seals suggest that certain prey important to them in this area in the 1970s remain important today, despite notable changes in the ecosystem. We believe that blubber FA analysis will be a useful tool in assessing the response of ice-associated pinnipeds and their ecosystem to changes associated with arctic warming.


Lipid Trophic studies Climate change Ice seal Blubber fatty acid 



We thank the residents of Little Diomede Island for providing samples from the subsistence hunts during spring 2003. Seal specimen collections were authorized by National Marine Fisheries Service Scientific Research Permit No. 358-1585. Funding for this project was provided by the Cooperative Institute for Arctic Research. Additional support came from the National Science Foundation (Grant # OPP 9910319) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada. Thanks also to SJ Iverson for generously supporting a portion of the experimental analysis.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Margaret H. Cooper
    • 1
  • Suzanne M. Budge
    • 1
  • Alan M. Springer
    • 2
  • Gay Sheffield
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Process Engineering and Applied ScienceDalhousie UniversityHalifaxCanada
  2. 2.Institute of Marine ScienceUniversity of Alaska FairbanksFairbanksUSA
  3. 3.Alaska Department of Fish and GameFairbanksUSA

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