Despite the growing awareness of the effects of a warming Arctic on the animals that inhabit it, the process by which these changes impact animals living there remains poorly understood.
A new study published in Scientific Reports describe how Muskoxen, big mammals that roam the Arctic tundra, are being born with smaller bodies in parts of the far north due to the inability of pregnant mothers to find food.
One reason the study suggests is rising temperatures. As Muskoxen eat plants all year round by digging through the snow with their hooves. However, rising temperatures means precipitation increasingly falls as rain, then it freezes on the surface engulfing the plants in inaccessible ice.
“Most people know polar bears are in trouble, but they don’t really make the connection that the warming that’s happening offshore is also happening onshore,” says the study’s lead author, Joel Berger, a Colorado State University professor and senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “These extreme weather events that have their genesis in warming temperatures are now impacting animals on land.”
In another extreme weather event, more than 50 muskoxen died flooded with ice as extreme wind pushed ice and freezing water so far inland that fish were found half a mile from shore.
These type of freak weather events are expected to become more common in the future.
“Whether we think about malnourished children or elk, we know that during gestation, especially during the last trimester, if a mother can’t get access to food, the baby pays the price,” Berger says. “Muskoxen come out runtier,” which, like other mammals, can lead to shorter lifespans and poor health.