Can we detect changes in Arctic ecosystems?

Lead Research Organisation: Marine Biological Association
Department Name: CPR Survey


Ecosystems are communities of organisms that interact with each other and their environment. They are often considered in terms of food webs or chains, which describe the interactions between different organisms and their relative hierarchies, known as trophic position. Ocean ecosystems provide key services, such as nutrition, control of climate, support of nutrient cycling and have cultural significance for certain communities. It is thus important that we understand how changes to the environment reshape ecosystems in order to manage climate change impacts.

The Arctic Ocean is already being heavily impacted by climate change. It is warming faster than any other ocean region and as it absorbs fossil fuel emissions, it is gradually acidifying. Arctic sea ice is declining by 10% per decade. This affects the availability of sea ice habitats for organisms from plankton to mammals and modifies the ocean environment. Finally, the Arctic is affected by changes in the magnitude of water movement to and from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and composition of these waters. Thus Arctic ecosystems are being impacted by multiple concurrent stressors and must adapt.

To understand how Arctic ecosystems will evolve in response to multiple stressors, it is crucial to evaluate the effects of on going change. Often these questions are tackled by studies that focus on a specific ecosystem in one location and document the various components of the food chain. However the Arctic is diverse, with a wide range of environments that are responding to unique stressors differently. We require a new approach that can provide information on Arctic ecosystems from a pan-Arctic perspective over decadal timescales.

To effectively monitor changes to pan-Arctic ecosystems requires tracers that focus on key ecosystem components and provide quantitative information on ecosystem structure, providing information for management and conservation of ecosystem services. Our goal is to respond to this challenge. We will focus simultaneously on the base of the food chain, controlled by the activity of marine phytoplankton, and key Arctic predators, harp and ringed seals. Seals are excellent candidates to monitor the food web due to their pan-Arctic distribution and foraging behaviour, which means they are exposed to the changing environment.

Nitrogen and carbon stable isotopes are often used to examine ecosystems as they are modified during trophic transfer up the food chain. Hence, they can quantify seal trophic position and food chain length, key determinants of ecosystem structure. Crucial in this context however is the isotope value of the base of the food web, known as the isoscape, which is itself affected by a range of environmental characteristics and fluctuates in space and time. Equally, by virtue of changing migration patterns, seals themselves may feed on similar prey in different isoscapes, which would affect the interpretation of ecosystem structure from stable isotopes. These are the major challenges in using stable isotopes.

We will link stable isotopes to novel tracers of the food web, known as biomarkers. When these tracers are compared against observations of the shifting isoscape and data on seal foraging, they permit seals to be used to monitor the Arctic ecosystem by quantifying their trophic position and overall food chain length. Via a range of observational platforms, our new food web tracers will be mechanistically linked to the spatial and seasonal trends in the Arctic isoscape and seal behaviour. By then combining historical observations from around the Arctic basin with state of the art ocean and seal population modelling, we can quantify past and future changes in Arctic ecosystems. This will provide information on past changes to Arctic ecosystems, but also put in place an approach that can be used to monitor future changes and aid in the management and conservation of ecosystem services

Planned Impact

The main beneficiaries of this project will be policy makers concerned with conservation of Arctic marine mammals, Inuit communities, school pupils, teachers and the wider general public.

Throughout much of their range, seals and other mammals are important cultural and nutritional resources for indigenous and non-indigenous communities. However, seals are being measurably impacted by climate change. Our project will provide observational and modelling evidence regarding the drivers of alterations to seals' trophic position, food web structure or foraging behaviour over decadal time scales. Using multiple tools, we will delineate if changes in seal trophic position, food chain length or foraging behaviour are due to environmental factors (e.g. sea ice changes), variations in the base of the food web (e.g. from reduced nutrient supply) or the addition of new trophic levels (e.g. migration of boreal species). Our work directly benefits ongoing programmes that monitor the Arctic, such as the Five-year Science Research Agenda from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (Canada). Our work will benefit work by DFO and aid Inuit communities develop adaptation strategies (Letter of Support from Ferguson, DFO). We will disseminate results from our project to key international organisations, such as the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES) and North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO), facilitated by NAMMCO General Secretary and project partner, Desportes. Other project partners (Stenson, Hammill, Ferguson and Hop) are also involved in ICES and NAMMCO, as well as the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Programme (CBMP), making them able to disseminate our results in the context of management and policy. A one year PDRA will collate, analyse and model historical data on harp and ringed seal body condition and fecundity alongside environmental variables and determine the factors driving long term change in seal populations, disseminating their findings to ICES and NAMMCO at international meetings. This will allow the practical and applied project outputs to inform management and policy for marine mammals in the Arctic, with the potential to affect future decision making for seal populations. Thus, we directly address NERC strategy by providing tools for the 'Management of Environmental Change'.

It is essential that our research outcomes are disseminated to the UK community. This is challenging but vital to recruit students into sciences, convince the public that it is worthwhile funding this type of research and increase awareness of the sensitivity of the Arctic to a changing climate. Our project will provide teachers with tools to demonstrate key concepts in our research programme. To this end, we will produce three posters to convey for example, 'Arctic food webs', 'Stable isotopes in Arctic ecology' and 'Impact of climate change on the Arctic' to school pupils in order to demonstrate how food webs operate in the Arctic. Posters will be hand-drawn by a visual artist with experience of communicating complex ideas concisely and digitized by co-PI Heath.

The general public tends to engage with popular wild life television programmes that illustrate the fauna of the Arctic and the pressures imposed by climate change. We will explain the vital role of microscopic phytoplankton and nutrients within the environment by creating one short accessible scored video, with combinations of film, hand and digital animations with commentaries aimed at the general public. The video will be distributed via a project YouTube channel and via our own website.

At the programme level we suggest (a) creating a dedicated programme website and social media outlets, (b) soliciting the BBC or Discovery Channel to produce a short documentary about the programme and (c) hiring an expert in science communication and impact to represent the programme and/or train members of the research programme in science communication.


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Zäncker B (2020) Reduce, Reuse, Recycle in the Arctic Ocean With the Power of Microbes in Frontiers for Young Minds

Description Our overall aim is to see if key food supply for larger animals in the arctic are changing. In the arctic, Calanoid copepods are highly abundant primary consumers that are eaten by fish and top predators and keystone feature of the arctic food web. Previously we improved on a method to detect arctic copepods which can be used a proxy for nutrient status and ocean health as some arctic copepod species have increased nutritional content compared to temperate species. The presence of these arctic copepods is a key indicator of a healthy food web for larger animals in the arctic.
This year we developed a genetic method to understand the diet of these copepods that involves DNA sequencing on a large scale, to assess the quality of food they gain from their prey. Our preliminary trials have been successful and we are now planning a larger-scale study to find out what arctic copepods eat and the effect of other organisms on these copepods e.g parasites. This opens a way to link primary producers at the bottom of the food web with primary consumers to better understand arctic food webs. This link is important as primary producers are the first to respond to environmental change and indicators of climate change. We are current carrying out nutrient assessment of dietary data using isotope analysis from amino acids in these copepods, to assess if the quality of food is declining in the arctic. In association with DIAPOD researchers, M. Edwards and C. Castellani, we are also looking at historical records from the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey on species distributions of calanoid copepod over many decades to understand if their distribution is changing. Overall, we will see if primary consumers are ch
Exploitation Route The modified assay is a cheap assay that can be used by marine ecologists to assess community composition of copepods. Such information can feed back into key zooplankton indicators of marine health for policy. The outcome of the dietary assay will be useful to inform food web models, develop indicators of food webs for the arctic, advise fisheries, and copepod aquaculture farming in the region.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description To educate school aged children on arctic foodwebs through publishing a core concepts review-type article in an open access international journal. The article was reviewed by a class of school children, thus allowing them to actively learn about this neglected aspect of arctic biology. They have provided useful feedback and asked interesting questions showing full engagement. When the article is published it will be available to a wider audience.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal

Title Adaptation of published PNA-PCR assay for the genetic detection of organisms associated with copepods for PhD project 
Description As part of a plan to detect diet of copepods, we had planned to use a modified method published method by Cleary et al. 2016 ( that identified diets of a different species of calanoid copepod from individual microscopic animals. This method is a modified PCR method that amplifies all DNA using a common taxonomic marker that can identify all eukaroytic organisms, including organisms the copepod has eaten but not yet fully digested. The DNA fragments would be sequenced to identify which organisms they came from. The modification employs the use of a blocking DNA (called PNA oligo) to block the signal of copepod which would normally swamp the signal from other organisms. The method worked on a trial run, but also generated additional signals that would confound the results. In collaboration with NBAF-L sequencing facility, we managed to alter the method to produce only the signal we needed. 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This methodology is a small adaptation of that published by Cleary et al. 2016. The tool has not been made public yet as it needs confirmation by sequencing, although trial sequencing has shown preliminary success. This methodology is challenging and our modifications bring about a significant simplification of the methodology and makes it safer, by avoiding gel extraction with the use of prolonged UV light. If successful, it will open the way to dissect food webs in primary oceanic consumers more effectively and on a larger scale. 
Title Identification of arctic copepods using 16S DNA barcoding primers 
Description Identification of a subset of arctic copepods preserved in RNAlater from a cruise was made possible using the general primers for mitochondrial 16S genes in animals. 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This assay has previously been used on other animals, buts its application in arctic copepods will improve identification tools in copepods significantly, especially in light of their poor representation in public databases. 
Title DNA archive from individual calanoid copepods from research cruise and CPR samples 
Description This project has generated a DNA archive of over 200 individual copepods from planned NERC ARISE arctic cruises in 2017 in Barents Sea and Fram Strait, of which 155 are from historic Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) arctic samples. This archive presents additional tools to analyse copepod biology and ecology for other research programmes. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This unique DNA archive consists of individual specimens which has particular uses to confirm species. Some arctic copepod zooplankton cannot be identified to species level by microscopy from the arctic. This large arctic specimen DNA sample set will allow retrospective baseline analysis of species distribution over 5 years in the arctic that would provide additional impact on species composition of arctic copepods in NERC funded DIAPOD study. Since we are also assessing diets of copepods in NERC ARISE cruise, the DNA will have additional metadata associated with it for future researchers. 
Description Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) 
Organisation Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA)
Country Norway 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution ARISE technical and Doctoral students will be taking nutrient and biological data on board the ship of opportunity, Norbjørn, from Tromso in Norway to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. This arrangement was made as a direct result of ARISE grant proposal
Collaborator Contribution Researchers at NIVA will help organise access onto Norbjørn vessel and share abiotic data from the ferrybox system installed in this ship by NIVA.
Impact Knowledge exchange agreement and ship access
Start Year 2016
Description Co-wrote an educational, peer-reviewed core concepts article on arctic ecosystems for the open access journal Frontiers for Young Minds, aimed at 11-15 year olds. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact To improve our educational outreach on arctic microbiology and food webs, B Zancker and myself co-wrote a review (core concepts) article for an open access journal called Frontiers for Young Minds aimed at school-aged children that is currently in review. It was also co-authored by my student, E. Price and M. Cunliffe. The article brought together how microbial food web is linked with what is considered more well known food webs in the context of arctic ecosystems and discusses climate change impacts on this system. The article is still in second round of review but initially was reviewed by a classroom of up to 30 pupils. This journal is part of a well known Frontiers scientific journal series. It is named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association with 1900 reviewers, 425 scientific mentors, 90 scientific editors in 450 countries. The reviewers did asked very insightful questions on climate change and we had good feedback on how to communicate to this age group.When published, it will reach an international audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019