Novel terrestrial haul-out behaviour by ringed seals (Pusa hispida) in Svalbard, in association with harbour seals (Phoca vitulina)
Ringed seals (Pusa hispida) are the most ice-associated of all Arctic pinnipeds. In the Svalbard area, this species has always given birth, moulted and rested on sea ice. In addition, much of their food has been comprised of ice-associated prey. Recently, ringed seals have been reported to be using terrestrial substrates as a haul-out platform in some fjords on the west coast of Spitsbergen. In many cases the seals involved are harbour seals (Phoca vitulina), which are extending their distribution into new areas within the Svalbard Archipelago and which are being misclassified as ringed seals. However, this study reports that terrestrial haulout by ringed seals is also now taking place on rocks exposed at low tide as well as on the coastline. Recent intrusions of warm Atlantic Water (with associated prey) have extended deep into the fjords of western Spitsbergen, resulting in deteriorated ice conditions for ringed seals and expanded habitat for harbour seals. Over the last decade, ringed seals have become more and more confined in coastal areas to narrow bands in front of tidal glacier fronts where Arctic conditions still prevail. In one lagoon area, ringed seals are hauling out on intertidal mud flats in close association with harbour seals. Land can likely replace sea-ice for many of the ringed seals haul-out needs. However, for the small dry-cold adapted ringed seal pups that are normally born in snow lairs on the sea ice, terrestrial haul-out is unlikely to be a viable solution because of predation and thermoregulatory stress.
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