Polar Biology

, Volume 40, Issue 10, pp 2027–2033 | Cite as

Interdecadal changes in the marine food web along the west Spitsbergen coast detected in the stable isotope composition of ringed seal (Pusa hispida) whiskers

  • Andrew D. Lowther
  • Aaron Fisk
  • Kit M. Kovacs
  • Christian Lydersen
Original Paper


Recent influxes of warm Atlantic water into the fjords of west Spitsbergen have led to concomitant influx of more temperate and boreal fish species. The changes in the water masses within the fjords naturally affect all trophic levels of the sympagic, benthic, and pelagic food chains in the area. The most abundant marine mammal species in the fjords of west Spitsbergen is the ringed seal (Pusa hispida), which feeds, breeds, and moults in this area. In this study, we used isotopic data from whiskers of two cohorts of adult ringed seals (sampled in 1990 and 2013) to determine whether signals of ecosystem changes were detectable in this top marine predator. Acknowledging the limitations to our understanding of whisker growth in phocid seals, we interpreted the isotopic data from whiskers under two alternate hypotheses of whisker replacement dynamics and the dietary periods that might be represented. Even under the most conservative hypothesis, it is clear from our data that changes in the marine food web of the west Spitsbergen coast have occurred over the last 20 years, and that these are detectable in the isotopes incorporated into higher trophic predators. Concluding which aspect of the food web has been modified is complicated by a lack of recent ringed seal dietary studies, a knowledge gap that should be prioritised as the climate continues to change.


Climate change Diet Foraging ecology Prey shifting Trophic levels Vibrissae 



This study was supported by the Norwegian Polar Institute. We thank Ms. Anna Hussey for her assistance in processing and analysing the whisker samples.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew D. Lowther
    • 1
  • Aaron Fisk
    • 2
  • Kit M. Kovacs
    • 1
  • Christian Lydersen
    • 1
  1. 1.Norwegian Polar InstituteFram CentreTromsøNorway
  2. 2.Great Lakes Institute for Environmental ResearchUniversity of WindsorWindsorCanada

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