A new type of ringed seal in West Greenland
Arctic marine ecosystems remain one of the few scientifically unchartered waters. A new research project, led by Associate Professor Morten Tange Olsen at the Globe Institute, describes a new type of ringed seal that inhabit the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO world heritage site in West Greenland.
The Arctic marine ecosystem is undergoing substantial changes, currently warming at rates well above the global average and seeing an increase in anthropogenic activities. Yet, due to the unexplored “hidden” nature of the Arctic, uncertainties remain how to best manage and conserve Arctic marine ecosystems and sustainably use their natural resources.
Our study describes a new type of ringed seal that inhabit Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO world heritage site in West Greenland. The seals in the Icefjord look different from other ringed seals – they are much larger and have very distinctive coloration and patterning of their coat. Local hunters have been aware of this distinctiveness for generations and have a special name for the seals from this region – they call them Kangiat (those from Kangia).
In this study, an international team of scientists – led by researchers from Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Greenland) and University of Copenhagen (Denmark) – has taken a multidisciplinary approach, combining state-of-the-art genome sequencing, telemetry “tagging”, and aerial surveys to investigate the genetic, ecological and behavioural uniqueness of the Kangia ringed seal.
The telemetry and aerial survey data show that Kangia ringed seals only number a few thousand animals, and that they stay within the Icefjord, occurring at high densities. These observations contrast to those for Arctic ringed seals, which usually have a larger population size and more mobile, typically dispersing thousands of kilometers across the Arctic on seasonal foraging migrations.
Our genomic data demonstrate that the Kangia seal has been isolated from other ringed seals for more than 100 thousand years and that they have evolved specific genes that likely code for its unique coat coloration, body size and adaptations to its special habitat.
Intriguingly, it remains unclear how and where the Kangia ringed seals became isolated and obtained there unique biological characteristics? Moreover, while we focus on the Icefjord, there are many fjords in the Arctic that could potentially host other special ringed seal types, so the study is perhaps just revealing the tip of the iceberg?
The documentation of a unique ringed seal ecotype highlights that there is still a lot to learn about the diversity of Arctic organisms, and how they adapt to changing climates and anthropogenic activities. This knowledge is not only vital for informing Arctic conservation and management efforts to protect biologically unique natural populations and resources, but it also has broader implications for understanding scientifically undescribed natural systems and marine diversity worldwide.
Morten Tange Olsen
Associate Professor, Ph.D.
Section for Molecular Ecology and Evolution
University of Copenhagen
Phone: +45 42 66 15 25