PrefacePrefaceIntroductionIntroductionIndigenous people and biodiveristy in the ArcticIndigenous people and biodiveristy in the ArcticChapter 1: SynthesisChapter 1: SynthesisChapter 2: Species Diversity in the ArcticChapter 2: Species Diversity in the ArcticChapter 3: MammalsChapter 3: MammalsChapter 4: BirdsChapter 4: Birds

Chapter 5: Amphibians and reptilesChapter 5: Amphibians and reptilesChapter 6: FishesChapter 6: FishesChapter 7: Terrestrial invertebratesChapter 7: Terrestrial invertebratesChapter 8: Marine invertebratesChapter 8: Marine invertebratesChapter 9: PlantsChapter 9: PlantsChapter 10: FungiChapter 10: FungiChapter 11: MicroorganismsChapter 11: Microorganisms

Chapter 12: Terrestrial ecosystemsChapter 12: Terrestrial ecosystemsChapter 13: Freshwater ecosystemsChapter 13: Freshwater ecosystemsChapter 14: Marine ecosystemsChapter 14: Marine ecosystemsChapter 15: ParasitesChapter 15: ParasitesChapter 16: Invasive species: human inducedChapter 16: Invasive species: human inducedChapter 17: GeneticsChapter 17: GeneticsChapter 18: Provisioning and cultural servicesChapter 18: Provisioning and cultural services

Chapter 19: Disturbance, feedbacks and conservationsChapter 19: Disturbance, feedbacks and conservationsChapter 20: LinguisticsChapter 20: LinguisticsArctic Biodiversity Assessment: Full documentArctic Biodiversity Assessment: Full document 


Preface by the ABA and the CAFF Chairmen

Photo: NASAPhoto: NASAThe eyes of the world are turning northwards. In recent years, interest in the Arctic has increased dramatically within and outside of Arctic countries. This is reflected in the amount of attention given to Arctic biodiversity. While the landscapes and wildlife have been the subject of explorers, scientists, artists and photographers as well as the home of a variety of peoples for a long time, until recently Arctic biodiversity did not feature very prominently in national or international policy work.

This, however, is changing, as the unique values of Arctic nature are increasingly discussed at high levels. At the same time, more and more attention has been paid to the interface between science and policy to ensure that policy is built on the best science available.

We are therefore very happy and proud to present the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment (ABA), which has been seven years in the making. It is the result of the contributions from over 250 scientists together with holders of traditional knowledge.

The chapters in the main document, which you are holding now, have been peer reviewed by over 100 scientists from all over the Arctic and the rest of the world. We are very grateful for the efforts they have made to ensure the quality of this assessment. We would especially like to thank chief scientist Hans Meltofte and the lead authors of the chapters.

In order to communicate the findings presented in this scientific work and to inform policy makers, the board of the Arctic Council’s working group on the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) has prepared a summary of the key findings and developed policy recommendations. The key findings and recommendations have been provided in a separate document, which we trust will be useful for all those who make decisions that may affect Arctic biodiversity.

The Arctic is home to a vast array of biodiversity, including many globally significant populations. Included among these are 30% of the world’s shorebird species, two thirds of the global numbers of geese, several million reindeer and caribou, and many unique mammals, such as the polar bear. During the short summer breeding season, almost 200 species of birds arrive from almost all parts of the world, connecting the Arctic with the rest of the globe. We therefore hope that the ABA will be consulted frequently within as well as outside of the Arctic.

Biodiversity is life. It is the very foundation of our existence on Earth. In the Arctic, links between biodiversity and traditional ways of life are often seen more clearly than in many other parts of the world. These are examples of ecosystem services, the benefits that we receive from nature. Many ecosystems and ecosystem functions in the Arctic remain largely unstudied and involve little-known organisms, especially microbes. The ABA presents current knowledge also on these processes and organisms and thus provides a base for further work.

But biodiversity is more than a means for humankind to survive. The unique nature of the Arctic is not just an asset for us to use. It is also a source of wonder, enjoyment and inspiration to people living in the Arctic and across the globe. It has intrinsic values that cannot be measured. We sincerely hope that the ABA will not only create the baseline reference for scientific understanding about Arctic biodiversity, but that it also may inspire people to take effective actions on the conservation of Arctic flora and fauna. We hope it gives people reasons to love Arctic nature as much as we do.


Evgeny Syroechkovskiy, Chair of CAFF
Mark Marissink, Chair of the ABA Steering Committee

Yakutsk, Russia, 17 February 2013


Foreword by the Chief Scientist


Photo: Andre Anita/Shutterstock.comPhoto: Andre Anita/Shutterstock.comUntil recently, most Arctic biodiversity was relatively unaffected by negative impacts from human activities. Only over-exploitation of certain animal populations posed serious threats, such as the extermination of Steller’s sea cow, the great auk, the Eskimo curlew and a number of whale populations in recent centuries, in addition to the contribution that humans may have made to the extermination of terrestrial mega-fauna in prehistoric times.

Human impacts, however, have increased in modern times with increasing human populations in much of the Arctic, modern means of rapid transport, modern hunting and fishing technology, increasing exploration and exploitation of mineral resources, impacts from contaminants and, most importantly, with climate change, which is more pronounced in the Arctic than elsewhere on the globe.

There is no inherited capacity in human nature to safeguard the Earth’s biological assets –moral and intellectual strength are needed to achieve conservation and wise use of living resources through cultural and personal ethics and practices. Sustainability is a prerequisite for such balance, but it does not come without restraint and concerted efforts by all stakeholders, supported by mutual social pressure, legislation and law enforcement.

The Arctic is changing rapidly with shorter winters, rapidly melting sea ice, retreating glaciers and expanding sub-Arctic vegetation from the south. If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, Arctic biodiversity will be forever changed, and much may disappear completely.

On 18 May 2011, 50 prominent thinkers, among them 15 Nobel Prize winners, issued The Stockholm Memorandum, which among other things states that:

Science indicates that we are transgressing planetary boundaries that have kept civilization safe for the past 10,000 years. Evidence is growing that human pressures are starting to overwhelm the Earth’s buffering capacity. Humans are now the most significant driver of global change, propelling the planet into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. We can no longer exclude the possibility that our collective actions will trigger tipping points, risking abrupt and irreversible consequences for human communities and ecological systems. We cannot continue on our current path. The time for procrastination is over. We cannot afford the luxury of denial. We must respond rationally, equipped with scientific evidence.

Among the many current and projected stressors on Arctic biodiversity addressed in this report is that of invasive species. However, if we want to do something about the many problems facing nature and biodiversity in the Arctic, we need to focus on the impacts of the most globally ‘invasive species’ of all: Homo sapiens.


Hans Meltofte
Copenhagen, Denmark, 8 February 2013


Lead Authors:  Hans Meltofte, Henry P. Huntington and Tom Barry 


Inukshuk (Cairn) Photo: Larry Maurer, ShutterstockInukshuk (Cairn) Photo: Larry Maurer, Shutterstock

The Arctic is home to a diverse array of plants and animals. They are adapted in various ways to a region that is often cold, experiences prolonged daylight in summer and equally lengthy darkness in winter, and includes habitats that range from ice caps to wetlands to deserts, from ponds to rivers to the ocean. Some of the Arctic’s species are icons, such as the polar bear, known throughout the world. Some are obscure, with many yet to be discovered. Arctic peoples, too, have adapted to this environment, living off the land and sea in keeping with the cycles of the seasons and the great migrations of birds, mammals and fish. Many birds, for example, spend the summer in the Arctic and are absent in winter, having flown to all corners of the Earth, thus connecting the Arctic with every region of the planet.

Today, Arctic biodiversity is changing, perhaps irreversibly. This introduction summarizes some of the main stressors as described in a series of Arctic Council assessments. Many of these threats have been the subject of intense research and assessment, documenting the impacts of human activity regionally and globally, seeking ways to conserve the biological and cultural wealth of the Arctic in the face of considerable pressures to develop its resources. These assessments have focused primarily on individual drivers of change.

The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment (ABA) focuses on the species and ecosystems characteristic of the Arctic region and draws together information from a variety of sources to discuss the cumulative changes occurring as a result of multiple factors. It draws on the most recent and authoritative scientific publications, supplemented by information from Arctic residents, also known as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). The chapters of the ABA have been through comprehensive peer reviews by experts in each field to ensure the highest standards of analysis and unbiased interpretation (see list below). The results are therefore a benchmark against which future changes can be measured and monitored.

The purpose of the ABA, as endorsed by the Arctic Council Ministers in Salekhard, Russia, in 2006 is to

Synthesize and assess the status and trends of biological diversity in the Arctic … as a major contribution to international conventions and agreements in regard to biodiversity conservation; providing policymakers with comprehensive information on the status and trends of Arctic biodiversity (CAFF 2007).

The intent is to provide a much needed description of the current state and recent trends in the Arctic’s ecosystems and biodiversity, create a baseline for use in global and regional assessments of Arctic biodiversity and a basis to inform and guide future Arctic Council work. The ABA provides up-to-date knowledge, identifies gaps in the data record, describes key mechanisms driving change and presents suggestions for measures to secure Arctic biodiversity. Its focus is on current status and trends in historical time, where available.



For this assessment a more scientific definition of the Arctic was needed than the CAFF boundaries, which are defined as much by political boundaries as by climatic and biological zoning, and therefore vary considerably among the Arctic nations. That such a clear definition is a prerequisite for a meaningful account of Arctic biodiversity can be illustrated by the highly varying numbers of ‘Arctic’ bird species found in the literature. By including huge tracts of boreal forest and woodland into the Arctic, as politically defined by CAFF, figures of up to “450 Arctic breeding bird species” have been quoted (Zöckler 1998, Trouwborst 2009) as compared with the circa 200 species given in the present report based on a stricter ecological definition (Ganter & Gaston, Chapter 4).

The name Arctic derives from the ancient Greek word Arktikós, meaning the land of the North. It relates to Arktos, the Great Bear, which is the star constellation close to the Pole Star. There are several definitions of the Arctic. From a geophysical point of view, the Arctic may be defined as the land and sea north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun does not set on the summer solstice and does not rise on the winter solstice. From an ecological point of view, it is more meaningful to use the name for the land north of the tree line, which generally has a mean temperature below c. 10-12 °C for the warmest month, July (Jonasson et al. 2000). With this definition, the Arctic land area comprises about 7.1 million km2, or some 4.8% of the land surface of Earth.  Similarly, the Arctic waters are defined by characteristics of surface water masses, i.e. the extent of cold Arctic water bordering temperate waters including ‘gateways’ between the two biomes. The Arctic Ocean covers about 10 million km2 (see Michel, Chapter 14 for details).

The vegetated lowland of the Arctic is often named tundra, which originates from the Saami word tundar, meaning treeless plain. In general, the low Arctic has much more lush vegetation than the high Arctic, where large lowland areas may be almost devoid of vegetation, like the Arctic deserts of the northernmost lands in the world.  The sub-Arctic or forest tundra is the northernmost part of the boreal zone, i.e. the area between the timberline and the tree line. Hence, the sub-Arctic is not part of the Arctic, just as the sub-tropics are not part of the tropics. Like the Arctic, the word boreal is derived from Greek: Boreas was the god of the cold northern winds and bringer of winter. Related zones are found in mountainous areas outside of the Arctic as sub-alpine, low-alpine and high-alpine biomes.

This assessment follows the Circumpolar Arctic Vegetation Map’s (CAVM Team 2003) definition of the Arctic, since this map builds on scientific criteria for Arctic habitats. Furthermore, inclusion of tree-covered sub- Arctic habitats would have expanded the volume of species and ecosystems beyond achievable limits. Yet, different chapters may cover additional bordering areas as needed to provide scientific and ecological completeness. The entire Arctic tundra region (sub-zones A-E on the CAVM) is addressed as comprehensively as possible in terms of species and ecosystem processes and services. Oceanic tundra (e.g. the Aleutian Islands), the sub-Arctic and other adjacent areas are addressed as appropriate in regard to (1) key ecosystem processes and services, (2) species of significance to the Arctic tundra region, (3) influences on the Arctic tundra region, and (4) potential for species movement into the current Arctic tundra region, e.g. due to global change.

For the separation between the high Arctic and the low Arctic, we follow the simplest division which is between sub-zones C and D on the CAVM. The southern limit of the sub-Arctic is ‘loose’, since work on a CAFF Circumpolar Boreal Vegetation Map is pending (CBVM 2011). Contrary to the Arctic zones on land, the boundaries at sea are tentative, and on Fig.1 they are indicated only with rough boundaries between the different zones.



According the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), biodiversity is

the variability among living organisms from all sources, including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part: this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.

Similarly, ecosystems are defined as

a dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit.

As also stated by the CBD

biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and micro organisms and their ecosystems – it is about people and our need for food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live.

Hence, in the present report, humans are both considered part of the ecosystems and as outside agents influencing the environment. The main focus, however, remains on status and trends in ‘non-human’ biodiversity.

This assessment covers all three aspects of biological diversity: species, ecosystems and genetic variation. Chapters 3-11 deal with taxonomic groups, Chapters 12-14 cover major ecosystems, Chapters 15 and 16 deal with two functional groups (parasites and invasive species, respectively), and Chapter 17 addresses genetic diversity. Finally, Chapters 18-20 deal with ecosystem services and other aspects of the human relationship with nature, including linguistic diversity.

Since there is no strict definition of an Arctic species, this assessment includes all species that reproduce in and/or have more than peripheral populations in the Arctic as defined above, i.e. excluding species with accidental or clearly insignificant appearance within the Arctic. Sub-Arctic species and ecosystems are dealt with as outlined above, i.e. where they have direct bearing on the Arctic but not for their own sake. Similarly, ecosystems are included if they have a substantial presence within the Arctic (see e.g. the CAVM).

Regarding distinction between marine, freshwater and terrestrial, in this report the marine includes everything up to the high water mark (i.e. including the intertidal zone). Fens and marshes are considered terrestrial, whereas tarns and ponds are considered freshwater ecosystems together with lakes, rivers and streams.

The organizing principles for the chapters are:

  • The species chapters focus on status and trends in distribution, population densities and abundance (population size).
  • For some taxa, species lists etc. are given in digital appendixes.
  • In the ecosystem chapters, the focus is on status and trends in distribution, composition (habitat and species richness), productivity (e.g. greening), phenology and processes (e.g. grazing and predation).
  • Causal explanations of observed changes are provided to the extent that the scientific literature offers analyses or descriptions thereof.
  • Similarly, to the extent that the scientific literature holds modeling or other information on future prospects for Arctic biodiversity and ecosystems within the 21st century – including anticipated tipping points and thresholds – these are referred to as well.
  • Information from holders of traditional knowledge has been considered in all chapters, in addition to a section on Indigenous peoples and biodiversity in the Arctic, which follows this Introduction.
  • Cumulative effects are considered where relevant.
  • Every effort has been made to avoid bias towards selective reporting of either positive or negative trends.



Climatically, ecologically, culturally, socially and economically, the Arctic is changing in many ways with implications throughout the region and around the world. In order to set the stage for assessing biodiversity, and to avoid repeating the same descriptions in each chapter, this section summarizes the main findings of major assessments undertaken within the Arctic Council, as these assessments have covered most of the major drivers of change. This section is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather to show the urgency and the timeliness of the ABA. Many changes are rapid and even accelerating, and the various assessments conducted in recent years make possible an examination of the combined effects of multiple stressors.


The Arctic climate is warming rapidly (ACIA 2005). Summer sea ice extent has diminished greatly in recent years, more of the Greenland ice cap is melting than before, and permafrost is thawing (AMAP 2009a, 2011a, 2011b). All of these changes affect Arctic ecosystems, as described in detail in this ABA. The Arctic Council, in cooperation with the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), produced in 2005 the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), which compiled into one document the information available at that time concerning the changing climate of the Arctic and the resulting effects on the cryosphere, ecosystems and human activities. Since that time, the Arctic Council has contributed to updates concerning various aspects of climate change in the Arctic. This recent information shows that the projections of the ACIA were, if anything, conservative (AMAP 2009a). Newer updates now include biological information, which will allow better monitoring and reporting of the effects of climate change on biodiversity.


The Arctic has abundant petroleum and mineral resources, the development of which has been slowed only by the costs of operating in remote areas with a harsh climate. Nonetheless, oil and gas fields in the Arctic provide a substantial part of the world’s supply at present, and many fields have yet to be developed. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP)’s assessment, Oil and gas activities in the Arctic: effects and potential effects, describes the petroleum reserves of the Arctic, development to date, likely development in the next two decades, and effects on ecosystems and society (AMAP 2009b). The pace of development will ref lect global demand as well as decisions by Arctic governments on the regulation of oil and gas activities and the capture of revenues from them. To date, oil and gas and other developments have had substantial though largely localized impacts on the environment. Further development, particularly the threat of oil spills and the introduction of invasive species in the marine environment, nonetheless poses a risk to much of the Arctic region.

Cultural and social change

Within living memory in many parts of the Arctic, local societies and economies have become ever more connected with the wider world through telecommunications, trade, travel and other influences and interactions. Today, monetary economies, national and regional governmental institutions, formalized educational systems, modern health care and new forms of communications are among the many factors shaping the lives of Arctic residents. While some changes have been highly beneficial, as seen in longer life expectancy and decreased infant mortality, other changes have disrupted traditional ways of life and contributed to environmental degradation. The Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) of the Arctic Council published the Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR) in 2004, examining a range of issues affecting Arctic peoples. Connection to the environment remains a vital part of the quality of life for many Arctic residents, as well as the foundation for Arctic cultures, but those connections are under threat from many directions (AHDR 2004). The SDWG is currently working on a follow-up to the AHDR.


As sea ice retreats, the prospects for shipping in the Arctic increase. The Northern Sea Route across the top of Eurasia has been used by icebreakers and ice-strengthened ships since the 1930s, primarily for transportation within Russia. A regular ice-free summer season would make the route attractive for through-shipping between East Asia and Europe, cutting thousands of kilometers off current routes. Recent summers have seen a few cargo ships making this voyage. The Northwest Passage through the Canadian Archipelago also offers the prospect of shorter shipping routes and improved access to the region’s resources, though not expected to become a transit shipping route for some time. The Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group of the Arctic Council completed the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) in 2009, evaluating the prospects for future shipping activity as well as resulting environmental, economic and social impacts (AMSA 2009). Much of the outcome for shipping depends on the governance regimes that are established in both territorial and international waters by the Arctic states and the global demand for Arctic resources. Increased shipping is also likely to increase Arctic resource development through improved access and lower costs. Local transportation has also improved over recent decades, with the widespread use of motorboats and mechanized snow travel (snowmobiles), as well as regular air service to many parts of the Arctic providing easier access to goods and services from the south.


Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals accumulate in Arctic ecosystems, despite being produced and released at far higher rates in temperate and tropical regions. Contaminants can be transported to the Arctic via ocean currents, large rivers and the atmosphere. In a cold climate, some of these substances tend to settle from the air onto land or into water and then stay there. Other substances, like mercury, have a more complex chemical cycle. These contaminants can accumulate in organisms at the bottom of the food web, and the concentrations of many of these substances magnify as they move from one trophic level to the next. Species at the top of the food web, such as seals and polar bear as well as humans who eat Arctic species, can be exposed to high levels of these contaminants, posing health risks in some instances. AMAP has conducted several assessments of contaminants in the Arctic (AMAP 1998, 2004, 2009c, 2011c). One result of this information was strong scientific and political motivation for the Stockholm Convention on POPs, a global agreement signed in 2001 that explicitly acknowledged concern for Arctic peoples and ecosystems. The biological and ecological impacts of contaminants remain subjects of research in the Arctic, particularly as climate change may alter contaminant transport and uptake (AMAP 2011c, UNEP/AMAP 2011).


The Ottawa Declaration of 1996 formally established the Arctic Council as a high-level, consensus-based, intergovernmental forum to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states, with the involvement of the Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. The Arctic Council is comprised of eight Arctic states and six Permanent Participants that represent the Indigenous Peoples of the circumpolar north. The Arctic Council is unique among intergovernmental forums in that both Arctic states and Permanent Participants have a seat at the same table. Several observer states, intergovernmental and interparliamentary organizations6 and non-government organizations7 also make valuable contributions to the Council’s work.

The Arctic Council members have recognized that their shared ecosystems with unique flora and fauna are fragile and threatened from a number of causes, and that changes in Arctic biodiversity have global repercussions (AEPS 1991). The Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group was established in 1991 under the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS, a precursor to the Arctic Council) in order to encourage the conservation of Arctic f lora and fauna, their diversity and their habitats. CAFF was subsequently incorporated within the Arctic Council.

CAFF’s mandate is to address the conservation of Arctic biodiversity and to communicate the findings to the governments and residents of the Arctic, helping to promote practices which ensure the sustainability of the Arctic’s resources. CAFF serves as a vehicle for cooperation on species and habitat management and utilization, to share information on management techniques and regulatory regimes, and to facilitate more knowledgeable decision-making. It provides a mechanism for developing common responses to issues of importance for the Arctic ecosystems such as development and economic pressures, conservation opportunities and political commitments.

The objectives assigned to CAFF are (CAFF 1995):

  • to collaborate for more effective research, sustainable utilization and conservation,
  • to cooperate to conserve Arctic f lora and fauna, their diversity and their habitats,
  • to protect the Arctic ecosystem from human-caused threats,
  • to seek to develop more effective laws, regulations and practices for f lora, fauna and habitat management, utilization and conservation,
  • to work in cooperation with the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic,
  • to consult and cooperate with appropriate international organizations and seek to develop other forms of cooperation,
  • to regularly compile and disseminate information on Arctic conservation, and
  • to contribute to environmental impact assessments of proposed activities.

Achieving success in conserving Arctic natural environments, while allowing for economic development, depends on obtaining and applying comprehensive baseline data regarding status and trends of Arctic biodiversity, habitats and ecosystem health. This need to identify and fill knowledge gaps on various aspects of Arctic biodiversity and monitoring was identified in the Arctic Council’s Strategy for the Conservation of Arctic Biodiversity (CAFF 1997) and reinforced by the Arctic Flora and Fauna report (CAFF 2001) and the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA 2005), which recommended that long-term Arctic biodiversity monitoring be expanded and enhanced.

CAFF responded with the implementation of the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program (CBMP). The CBMP is an international network of scientists, government agencies, indigenous organizations and conservation groups working to harmonize and integrate efforts to monitor the Arctic’s living resources. Following the establishment of the CBMP, it was agreed that it was necessary to provide policy makers and conservation managers with a synthesis of the best available scientific and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) on Arctic biodiversity. The ABA will serve as a baseline upon which the CBMP will build, providing up-to-date status and trends information to support ongoing decision-making and future assessments of the Arctic’s biodiversity.

To take stock of the current state of biodiversity in the Arctic, the ABA was endorsed by the Arctic Council in 2006 (Salekhard Declaration). The ABA has been an inclusive process which has harnessed the efforts of 251 scientists from 10 countries including both Arctic and non-Arctic states. Co-lead authors for each chapter were appointed from North America and Eurasia in order to seek a balanced approach. TEK was recognized as an important contribution to provide ‘eye-witness’ observations on the status and trends in Arctic biodiversity, and a process was put in place to allow for the incorporation of TEK within the ABA (Mustonen & Ford 2013).  TEK coordinators were appointed for Eurasia and North America and compiled TEK material into a reference document to inform the ABA (Mustonen & Ford 2013).

The first deliverable from the ABA process was Arctic Biodiversity Trends: Selected Indicators of Change (CAFF 2010), which presented a preliminary assessment of status and trends in Arctic biodiversity and was based on a suite of 22 indicators developed by the CBMP. The 2010 report was the Arctic Council’s contribution to the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity in 2010 and its contribution to the CBD’s 3rd Global Biodiversity Outlook to measure progress towards the 2010 Biodiversity Targets (CBD 2010a). The CBD COP11 welcomed the report and noted its key findings. Changes in Arctic biodiversity can have global implications (CAFF 2010), and it is critical to ensure that information on such changes is linked into international agreements and legal frameworks. The CBD has recognized the importance of Arctic biodiversity in a global context, and highlighted the need for continued collaboration between the CBD and CAFF to contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of the Arctic’s living resources (CBD 2010b), in particular with regards to monitoring and assessing status and trends, and stressors to Arctic biodiversity. CAFF was requested to provide information on status and trends in Arctic biodiversity to inform the next Global Biodiversity Outlook report.

The ABA has benefited from the broad range of research efforts generated by the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008. It contributes to the legacy of IPY by providing a means of integrating and allowing IPY research to reach a wider audience.

A key challenge for conservation in the Arctic and globally is to shorten the gap between data collection and policy response. CAFF has recognized this challenge and in recent years has worked towards developing a solution. This approach has focused on not just developing traditional assessments but also addressing the collection, processing and analysis of data on a continuous basis. Indeed, the ABA provides a baseline of current knowledge, closely linked to the development of the CBMP as the engine for ongoing work, including the production of regular and more flexible assessments and analyses.



Lead Authors:  Tero Mustonen and Violet Ford

Photo: Indigenous Peoples’ SecretariatPhoto: Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat

The late Yukaghir-Chukchi reindeer herder Grigorii Velvin was a well-known storyteller and keeper of his people’s culture. He lived in the Lower Kolyma region of Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, Russia. In 2005 he related the following oral history regarding the Yukaghir relationship with bears:

About relatives, about my family. Mother of my grandmother, grandmother of my mother. They were Yukaghir. There used to be people from Alai. Especially from my mother’s side, they were Yukaghir from Alai. They were considered to be ‘proper’ Yukaghir. Mother of my grandmother told the story that our ancestor is the bear. One of the ladies got married… She got lost and met a bear. The bear took her as his bride. When the bear would leave its den,it would close the opening with a big rock so that the woman would not leave the den. Once however she managed to escape. She ran to her relatives and said: “He will come after me for sure, please butcher and sacrifice a white reindeer as an offering.” Her people followed her orders, made the offering at a campsite and went away themselves. It is told that the bear took the reindeer and left the area. In a way they made a bargain. And thus she was able to escape. She gave birth to a child and that is how our family got started. This family has this oral history. Therefore the Yukaghir here, our tundra Yukaghir, do not touch the bear. It is our ancestor. This is a legend that the mother of my grandmother told. I have heard it. My grandmother told it to my mother and my mother passed it on to me (Mustonen 2009).

This story indicates the deep and multifaceted relationships that the Arctic’s Indigenous peoples have with northern ecosystems and species. The Arctic is a homeland for the many nations that have existed there for millennia. Arctic biodiversity supports Arctic Indigenous peoples as they maintain and develop their societies, cultures and ways of life. An example illustrating the way in which people renew their connection to the sea can be seen in the ritual of the Nuataaqmiut Inupiaq hunters of Northwest Alaska. When they have caught a beluga whale they place a piece of its skin on a pole by the sea shore to indicate to other belugas swimming by that the hunters are treating the body of their dead relative properly and are enabling its spirit to return to the sea (Burch 1998).

Indigenous peoples’ perceptions of biodiversity and the challenges it faces globally are based on their dependence on the environment, their values and their belief systems. Varied as these values and belief systems are, the special relevance of Indigenous peoples’ views on the protection of biodiversity have been recognized by the international community and clearly set forth in diverse instruments, most prominently, perhaps, in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The CBD, in Article 8 on ‘In-situ Conservation’, specifies the duty of the national parties to the convention to:

respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of Indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge, innovations and practices

To the degree that stipulations such as this are implemented, they greatly facilitate Arctic’s Indigenous peoples’ contributions to the protection of Arctic biodiversity and will provide more opportunities for traditional knowledge to inform the policy making process.

When discussing Arctic biodiversity and Indigenous peoples, we need to appreciate that Indigenous environmental governance regimes have existed and to certain extent still exist in the Arctic. The Saami siida family and clan territories (Mustonen & Mustonen 2011, Mustonen 2012), the North-west Alaskan Inupiaq territoriality (Burch 1998) and the regional governance based on seasonal cycles of the Yukaghir peoples in the Kolyma region of Siberian Russia (Mustonen 2009) are examples of such regimes.

These are spiritual-cultural systems of reciprocity, with the characteristics of the surrounding ecosystems dictating the way the relationship between an animal and a hunter is be ing understood across the community and the region. There is a social dimension to hunting, a spiritual dimension and a direct relationship with the land. What Arctic Indigenous peoples bring to this relationship is associated with their wellbeing, culture and spirituality. Moreover, customary laws were, and to some extent still are, understood and applied with reference to beliefs and values concerned with managing and sustaining biodiversity. These laws prescribe how and when to utilize Arctic ecosystem services.

According to traditional beliefs of the Amitturmiut Inuit in Nunavut, if a camp is occupied for too long, the land becomes hot and dangerous. People have to move away to other areas to give the land a chance to cool (Bennet & Rowley 2004):

A land could only be occupied for three years. No one canlive on this land beyond the three years. … That was the way they lived, always moving to another [place], never occupying one land beyond three winters. … The land itself was prevented from’rotting’ by this. Should one choose to occupy the land beyond three years, then they are bound to face peril, which might include dearth, therefore they had to follow this rule.

These are no perfect systems of sustainability. They are vulnerable and fragile and dependent upon the conditions of the surrounding environment. It is important to highlight that although cases of overharvest are known, these systems usually operate within the carrying capacity of a particular ecosystem. However one should be careful not to uncritically impose an explanation from the outside as to why overhar vest has happened, and instead carefully examine a range of features of and reasons for a particular event, especially through utilizing the oral histories of the people themselves (Burch 1998).

Another important realization is that the cultural notions of cosmology, time, space and scale of Indigenous peoples in many cases differ markedly from the linear concepts typically applied to time and space by mainstream society. Having their own knowledge and terminologies, Indigenous peoples conceive ecosystems and species altogether differently.

In short, Arctic biodiversity has been and continues to be managed and sustained by Arctic Indigenous peoples through their traditional knowledge. Traditional knowledge is used to observe, evaluate and form views about a particular situation on the land. This knowledge reflects perceptions and wisdom that has been passed on to new generations right up to the present day. How ever, steps need to be taken to ensure that traditional knowledge is renewed and passed on to the generations to come. The imposition of ‘western’ ways of living, introduced diseases and health regimes, formalized school-based education, Christianity, and the criss-crossing of traditional homelands by modern infrastructure have reduced the capacity of Arctic Indigenous communities to maintain their customary ways of understanding and interacting with their environment. The past century has seen the rise of modern conservation practices in tandem with increasing industrial uses of the land, often with no appreciation for traditional modes of life in the region.

The past teaches that it is essential to maintain and support Indigenous management regimes to revitalize language and knowledge systems that organize sustainable practices such as nomadic reindeer herding in Siberia, and to explore best practices of co-management in order to sustain Indigenous ways of life and the biodiversity with which they have long co-existed. Indigenous peoples’ views are now recognized as part of the formal environmental decision-making process. Therefore, it is time to initiate a respectful and all-encompassing dialogue between mainstream societies and Indigenous peoples on how to manage and preserve the Arctic for future generations.

However, the time has also come to recognize that rights to full consultation and the principle of free, prior and informed consent so often invoked as pivotal Indigenous rights actually are meaningless in themselves. The right to consultation and the consent principle make sense only as related to fundamental human rights of Indige nous peoples: the right to self-determination, to culture, to property and to use of land and waters, to name a few. Although not directly a part of this assessment, the question of these fundamental rights still needs to be addressed in order to determine the role of Indigenous peoples with regards to the future of Arctic biodiversity.

The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment is an important step in the right direction. Now, humankind needs to continue towards regional and local implementation of the messages contained in this report to make sure we act together, with due diligence, for the good of the Arctic today and tomorrow.




Lead Authors: David C. Payer, Alf B. Josefson and Jon Fjeldså 


Photo: Jenny E. RossPhoto: Jenny E. Ross

Species richness is generally lower in the Arctic than at lower latitudes, and richness also tends to decline from the low to high Arctic. However, patterns of species richness vary spatially and include significant patchiness. Further, there are differences among taxonomic groups, with certain groups being most diverse in the Arctic.

Many hypotheses have been advanced to explain the overall decline of biodiversity with increasing latitude, although there is still no consensus about a mechanistic explanation. Observed patterns are likely the result of complex interactions between various biotic and abiotic factors. Abiotic factors include lower available energy and area at high latitudes, and the relatively young age of Arctic ecosystems. Among biotic factors, latitudinal differences in rates of diversification have been suggested, but empirical evidence for this as a general principle is lacking. Recent evidence suggests that ‘tropical niche conservatism’ plays a role in structuring latitudinal

When there is an earthquake, we say that the mammoth are running. We have even a word for this, holgot. Vyacheslav Shadrin, Yukaghir Council of Elders, Kolyma River Basin, Russia; Mustonen 2009.

Physical characteristics of the Arctic important for structuring biodiversity include extreme seasonality, short growing seasons with low temperatures, presence of permafrost causing ponding of surface water, and annual to multi-annual sea-ice cover. The Arctic comprises heterogeneous habitats created by gradients of geomorphology, latitude, proximity to coasts and oceanic currents, among others. Superimposed on this is spatial variation in geological history, resulting in differences in elapsed time for speciation.

Over 21,000 species of animals, plants and fungi have been recorded in the Arctic. A large portion of these are endemic to the Arctic or shared with the boreal zone, but climate-driven range dynamics have left little room for lasting specialization to local conditions and speciation on local spatial scales. Consequently, there are few species with very small distributions. In terrestrial regions, high-latitude forests were replaced by tundra about 3 million years ago. Early Quaternary Arctic flora included species that evolved from forest vegetation plus those that immigrated from temperate alpine habitats, but the most intensive speciation took place in situ in the Beringian region, associated with alternating opportunities for dispersal (over the Bering land bridge, when sea levels were low) and isolation (during high sea levels). In the marine realm, the evolutionary origin of many species can be traced to the Pacific Ocean at the time of the opening of the Bering Strait, about 3.5 million years ago.

More than 20 cycles of Pleistocene glaciation forced species to migrate, adapt or go extinct. Many terrestrial species occupied southern refugia during glaciations and recolonized northern areas during interglacials. Ice-free refugia persisted within the Arctic proper; species occupying these refugia diverged in isolation, promoting Arctic diversification. The most significant Arctic refugium was Beringia and adjacent parts of Siberia. Pleistocene glaciations also resulted in a series of extinction and immigration events in the Arctic Ocean. During interglacials, marine species immigrated mainly though the Arctic gateways from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, a process that continues today.

Throughout the Pleistocene, Arctic species responded to climatic cycles by shifting their distributions, becoming extirpated or extinct, persisting in glacial refugia, and evolving in situ. Although the last 10,000 years have been characterized by climatic stability, the Earth has now entered a period of rapid anthropogenic climate change that is amplified in the Arctic. Generalism and high vagility typical of many Arctic species impart resilience in the face of climate change. However, additional anthropogenic stressors including human habitation, overharvest, industrial and agricultural activities, contaminants, altered food webs and the introduction of invasive species pose new challenges. The consequences of current warming for Arctic biodiversity are therefore not readily predicted from past periods of climate change.


Arctic ecosystems are relatively young in a geological sense, having developed mainly in the last 3 million years (Murray 1995), although some Arctic species’ lineages diverged and adapted to cold, polar conditions much earlier (see Section 2.3). In general, species richness is lower in the Arctic than in more southerly regions (Fig. 2.1). This is consistent with the general observation that biodiversity declines from the Equator to the poles (Rosenzweig 1995, Gaston & Blackburn 2000, Willig et al. 2003). The strength and slope of latitudinal biodiversity gradients differ between regions and are more pronounced in terrestrial and marine systems than in freshwater environments, and, in general, most pronounced in organisms with greater body mass and those occupying higher trophic levels (Hillebrand 2004). With the recent development of global distributional and phylogenetic datasets, however, it has become apparent that the pattern is much more complex than previously assumed (Jetz et al. 2012).

A number of hypotheses have been advanced to explain the latitudinal trend of biodiversity, although no consensus exists for a mechanistic explanation (Currie et al. 2004). Hypotheses may be grouped into those based on ecological mechanisms of species co-occurrence, evolutionary mechanisms governing rates of diversification, and earth history (Mittlebach et al. 2007). Until recently, ecological hypotheses have dominated the discussion, but with the development of large DNA-based phylogenies there is now more focus on understanding the underlying historical processes. The hypotheses proposed to date are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and observed patterns are likely the result of complex interactions between various biotic and abiotic factors.

The decline of available energy (Allen et al. 2002) and decreasing biome area (Rosenzweig 1995) with increasing latitude should both contribute to declining species richness in the North. Rohde (1992) posited that the ultimate cause could be a positive relationship between temperature and evolutionary speed. Relative to the tropics, the Arctic has limited insolation (lower solar energy input and thus colder temperatures) and a shorter elapsed time for diversification. In Rohde’s (1992) view, all latitudes could support more species than currently exist, and, given adequate evolutionary time, the Arctic could support biodiversity rivaling that of lower latitudes. Because of great variation in speciation rates, however, the number of species in taxonomic groups is uncoupled from the age of groups (Rabosky et al. 2012). Further, several Arctic groups (notably waterfowl and gulls) underwent significant recent increases in speciation rates (Jetz et al. 2012). Thus, there is no general latitudinal change in speciation rates (as assumed, e.g. by Wiens et al. [2010]), and Jetz et al. (2012) instead point out hemispheric or even more local differences.

The recently proposed ‘tropical niche conservatism’ hypothesis may reconcile some of these diverging tendencies. This hypothesis assumes that most organismal groups originated during times when the global climate was warm paratropical), and these groups tend to retain their adaptations to such conditions (Webb et al. 2002). Thus, as the global climate became cooler during the Oligocene, and again in the late Miocene, the ancient groups contracted their geographical distributions towards the Equator to maintain their original niches. The long time or speciation in tropical environments, compared with cold environments, would explain the large accumulation of species, and phylogenetically overdispersed communities, in the humid tropics (Wiens 2004). The most significant increases in speciation rates are associated with ecological shifts to new habitats that arose outside the humid tropics, notably in montane regions and archipelagos (Fjeldså et al. 2012, Jetz et al. 2012; see also Budd & Pandolfi 2010). However, only some groups have (yet) responded by adapting to these new environments, resulting in small and phylogenetically clustered communities in the Arctic.

The diversification process within the Arctic may have been strongly affected by the climatic shifts caused by variations in Earth’s orbit known as Milankovitch oscillations. This includes a tilt in the Earth’s axis that varies on a 41,000-year cycle (precession), an eccentricity in Earth’s orbit that varies on a 100,000-year cycle, and 23,000 and 19,000-year cycles in the seasonal occurrence of the minimum Earth-Sun distance (perihelion; Berger 1988). Milankovitch Oscillations cause variations in the amount of solar energy reaching Earth, and these variations interact with characteristics of the Earth’s atmosphere such as greenhouse gas concentration and surface albedo, resulting in rapid, nonlinear climatic change (Imbrie et al. 1993). The present interglacial period, which has extended over the last 10,000 years, is a period of exceptional climatic stability; stable conditions have typically lasted only a few thousand years, and > 90% of the Quaternary Period (2.6 Million years ago to present) has been characterized by more climatically dynamic glacial periods (Kukla 2000).

Webb & Bartlein (1992) noted that Milankovitch oscillations are associated with changes in size and location of species’ geographical distributions. Dynesius & Jansson (2000) called these recurrent changes “orbitally forced species’ range dynamics” (ORD), and noted that they constrain evolutionary processes acting on shorter time scales. The effects of Earth’s precession and orbital eccentricity on surface temperatures are greatest at high latitudes (Wright et al. 1993), resulting in increasing ORD along the latitudinal gradient from tropics to poles. Predicted evolutionary consequences of enhanced ORD are apparent in general characteristics of Arctic biota, including enhanced vagility and larger species’ geographic range sizes (Rapoport’s rule), and therefore increased mixing of locally-adapted populations, increased proportion of polyploids within plant taxa, and reduced rates of speciation (Dynesius & Jansson 2000, Jansson & Dynesius 2002). There is spatial variation in these processes within latitude, however, which must be considered when evaluating current diversity patterns. For example, the Pleistocene temperature amplitude was lower in East Siberia and the Bering Strait region than in areas around the North Atlantic, leading to less glaciation (Allen et al. 2010) and enhanced opportunities for speciation in the Siberian-Beringian region (see below).

Although ORD increases risk of extinction associated with habitat change, this is mitigated by enhanced generalism, vagility and genetic mixing at high latitudes (Dynesius & Jansson 2000). This has important implications for risk of extinction associated with climate change and other stressors, as will be discussed in subsequent chapters of this Assessment.


Over the last 2.6 million years, throughout the cycles of Pleistocene glaciations, Arctic species have shifted their distributions, become extirpated or extinct, persisted in glacial refugia, undergone hybridization, and evolved in situ. Although the last 10,000 years have been characterized by a relatively high degree of climatic stability, the Earth has now entered a period of rapid anthropogenic climate change. Global temperatures have been warmer than today’s for less than 5% of the last three million years (Webb & Bartlein 1992) and are within 1 °C of the maximum over the last one million years (Hansen et al. 2006). Further, the rate and magnitude of warming is amplified in the Arctic (McBean 2005, IPCC 2007, AMAP 2009, AMAP 2011). This trend of accelerating climate change and Arctic amplification is expected to continue (Overland et al.2011). Global warming has caused species distributions to shift northward and to higher elevations for a wide range of taxa worldwide (Walther et al. 2002), including species occupying the Arctic (e.g. Sturm et al. 2001, Hinzman et al. 2005).

The Arctic, being a region with high ORD and therefore populated by species that have experienced selection pressure for generalism and high vagility (Jansson & Dynesius 2002), should have inherent resilience in the face of climate change. Some extant Arctic species have survived population bottlenecks driven by climatic change, including cetaceans (e.g. narwhal [Laidre & Heide-Jørgenson 2005]) and waders (Kraaijeveld & Nieboer 2000), further suggesting some degree of climate-change resiliency. However, the rapid rate of change occurring now and the amplification of this change at high latitudes pose unique challenges for Arctic species. The Arctic has experienced less anthropogenic habitat change and fragmentation than lower latitudes, which favors the ability of species to track shifting habitats. However, because of the limited area available in the polar regions, terrestrial Arctic biota have limited ability to respond to warming by northward displacement (MacDonald 2010). Kaplan & New (2006) predicted that Arctic tundra will experience a 42% reduction in area if global mean temperature is stabilized at 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. Although the rate of change is debated (e.g. Hofgaard et al. 2012), there is general agreement that area of tundra will be significantly reduced in this century.

In addition to rapid and accelerating climate change, Arctic species are experiencing anthropogenic stressors that did not exist during past periods of warming, including human habitation, overharvest, industrial and agricultural activities, anthropogenic contaminants, altered food webs, and the introduction of invasive species (Meltofte et al., Chapter 1). The many migratory species that occur only seasonally in the Arctic face additional and potentially cumulative anthropogenic stressors on migration routes and in overwintering areas that could further impact their ability to adapt. The suite of stressors experienced by Arctic species today is therefore novel, making past periods of climatic change an imperfect analogue for the challenges now facing Arctic biodiversity. Future efforts to preserve Arctic biodiversity must be similarly novel and broadreaching.



MAMMALS (Chapter 3)

Lead Authors:  Donald G. Reid, Dominique Berteaux and Kristin L. Laidre 

Contributing Authors: Anders Angerbjörn, Robyn Angliss, Erik W. Born, Peter Boveng, Dean Cluff, Dorothee Ehrich, Steven H. Ferguson, Joel Garlich-Miller, Gilles Gauthier, Anne Gunn, Kit M. Kovacs, Nicolas Lecomte, Lloyd F. Lowry, Philip McLoughlin, Dennis Litovka, Sue Moore, Kaisu Mustonen, Tero Mustonen, Linh Nguyen, Elizabeth Peacock, Kim Poole, Lori Quakenbush, Don Russell, Niels M. Schmidt, Boris Sheftel, Michael Simpkins, Benoit Sittler, Brian Slough, Andrew Smith, Fernando Ugarte, Dag Vongraven and Øystein Wiig



Arctic Fox Photo: Carsten Egevang/ARC-PIC.comArctic Fox Photo: Carsten Egevang/

There have been substantial changes during the past 50 years in the distribution and abundance of numerous Arctic mammals. The intensity and scope of these changes have been more pronounced in marine than terrestrial mammals. However, the lack of quantitative information for many species means that our assessment is biased towards the larger, more conspicuous and more economically useful species.

One set of changes is driven by a warming climate. Reductions in the duration, extent and quality of sea ice are forcing ice-dependent mammals (notably polar bears Ursus maritimus, seals and walrus Odobenus rosmarus) to change feeding behavior and areas, change habitats for reproduction and resting, and often travel further, with consequent reductions in population productivity and size. Increased frequency of winter rain and melting temperatures create ice cover on the ground or in the snowpack, making it more difficult for caribou/reindeer Rangifer tarandus and muskoxen Ovibos moschatus to reach food, and sometimes causing die-offs. Warming temperatures are driving greater growth and spread of primarily shrubs, but also trees, transforming the low Arctic tundra to sub-Arctic conditions with resultant influx of species (notably moose Alces americanus, Eurasian elk Alces alces, American beaver Castor canadensis and snowshoe hare Lepus americanus) that can use this new habitat. Later onset of snow in autumn and earlier spring melt shorten the duration and quality of the snow cover that is essential for lemming winter reproduction, and are implicated in reduced amplitude and longer periods in lemming cycles, and therefore reduced availability of lemming prey for numerous predators.

The bears are more hungry. There is a problem with the ice. The rough ice makes it hard for them to find seals, but there is the same number of seals. […] The only change I’ve noticed is when I was growing up the polar bears would scare easily and run away. Even when they were around shacks they didn’t break windows or do damage but now they are not afraid. They used to avoid communities before and now they don’t. Dowsley 2007.

In addition to these patterns, other processes related to a warming climate include: changes in the onset, duration and amount of plant growth, changing distributions of ice-associated marine productivity, increased frequency of boreal and tundra wild fires, changes in the relative abundance of particular plant groups in tundra habitats, changing insect distribution and abundance, changing distributions of parasites and pests, together with more extreme weather events and storms. These are likely to have direct or indirect effects on the distribution, carrying capacity, productivity and ultimately population size of various mammals (notably migratory tundra caribou and voles). However, at present we still lack sufficient information to draw strong inferences about causal mechanisms between these acknowledged climate patterns and mammal distributions and demography.

Ecological changes related to a warming climate are happening so fast and are so pervasive that stabilization and major reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases, at the global scale, are the highest priority conservation action for the Arctic.

A second set of changes is driven by human activities. Harvesting of Arctic mammals has a long history. Commercial interests have driven major declines in some populations of whales and reindeer, but intensive harvest management has demonstrated that many populations can recover, and that various species can sustain well-regulated harvests (e.g. whales, polar bears, seals, reindeer and caribou, Arctic fox Vulpes lagopus). Indigenous peoples have strong cultural and economic ties to the harvesting of mammals. These can be sustained with a combination of cultural tradition and better science-based monitoring of population sizes and harvest levels.

Humans have introduced or re-introduced populations of some species in the Arctic, considerably inf luencing their distributions and ecological roles. North American species such as muskrat Ondatra zibethicus and American mink Neovison vison, introduced to Eurasia, have spread into the low Arctic. Relocations of muskoxen have been successful in numerous circumpolar sites. We recommend against future introductions of mammals to previously unoccupied ranges, especially islands, because of uncertain and often disruptive ecological impacts.

The Arctic is experiencing more human activity and infrastructure developments at sea and on land in recent decades, as a result of hydrocarbon and mineral exploration and developments, new shipping routes, new roads and increased tourism. These bring risks of direct mortality (e.g. oiling from spills, ship collisions), of displacement from critical habitats (e.g. calving, pupping and feeding areas), of disturbance (e.g. aircraft, road or ship noise interfering with whale feeding or caribou suckling), and of increased human harvests.

The following are high priority actions to mitigate the risks of increasing human activities:

  • (1) an expanded system of protected areas or more intensively managed zones, especially marine, with emphasis on coastlines, polynyas, deltas, the edge of the ice pack, and caribou calving grounds,
  • (2) harmonized, cross-jurisdictional, regulatory and assessment regimes for ocean shipping, aircraft routing, seismic and drilling activities, hydrocarbon and mineral developments and tourism, and
  • (3) a more complete mammal distribution and abundance monitoring program designed to test alternative hypotheses regarding mechanisms driving changes.

Arctic carnivorous mammals, especially marine, have increasing levels of contaminants, notably organochlorines and heavy metals, as a result of increased delivery of these substances to the Arctic food web as airborne pollutants or in runoff from freshwater Arctic drainages. There is little evidence of demographic consequences in wild mammals to date, but a growing need to better understand the origins of pollutants, with internationally coordinated efforts to reduce them at source.

The relative impact of current changes varies by species and biogeographic region. However, most changes have been, and will continue to be, in the low Arctic regions. This is where human activity is more intense, and where the most dramatic terrestrial and marine habitat changes are taking place. Oceans pose an insurmountable barrier to any northward expansion of smaller-bodied terrestrial species currently confined to Arctic mainland, and these will experience the most significant range restrictions. Likewise many expanding boreal species within continental Eurasia and North America will be stopped by ocean barriers, and will be unable to reach the Arctic islands. This particular isolation of islands, such as the Canadian archipelago, Novaya Zemlya and Severnaya Zemlya, to novel colonization by smaller mammals allows these islands to act as partial refuges for their existing mammal fauna in the face of climate-driven changes in distribution.


Relatively few mammals occur in the Arctic. About 67 species of terrestrial mammals and 35 species of marine mammals occupy this biome, at least seasonally (Appendix 3.1), comprising about 2% of global mammalian diversity. This low percentage ref lects the energetic constraints facing homeotherms in this environment, and the fact that large areas were covered in ice through various ice ages, and as recently as 7,000-14,000 years ago (Dyke 2004). As climates warmed in the late Pleistocene and the Holocene (i.e. the last c. 12,000 years), Arctic tundras changed in distribution and composition. Mammals redistributed themselves, evolved to the new conditions, or became extinct probably as a result of a complex combination of climate changes and hunting by humans (Lorenzen et al. 2011). The Arctic is now home to species belonging to the following mammalian orders: Rodentia (rodents), Lagomorpha (hares and pikas), Soricomorpha (shrews), Carnivora (dogs, bears, cats, weasels, walruses and seals), Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates) and Cetacea (porpoises and whales). All of these are characteristic north temperate latitude groups, but representatives of two other such mammalian orders – Erinaceomorpha (hedgehogs) and Chiroptera (bats), both insectivorous – have not colonized Arctic latitudes in the Holocene.

The Arctic biome is generally defined in a terrestrial context, as tundra habitats where trees do not grow (see Section 2 in Meltofte et al., Introduction for this Assessment’s delineations of low and high Arctic). Such a tree-line is imprecise in definition, and the sub-Arctic includes extensive shrub tundra interspersed with trees (northern taiga forest). We include terrestrial species with predominantly boreal, including sub-Arctic, distributions whose habitat affinities and documented distributions include some of the low Arctic. For marine ecosystems there is nothing equivalent to the treeline to allow a convenient ecological definition of ‘Arctic’. We discuss in detail those species with a well-documented and consistent occupation of marine areas encompassed by low and high Arctic. We do not discuss species using sub-Arctic marine waters. We also acknowledge the occasional occurrence of other species within low Arctic waters (Appendix 3.2). The taxonomy of Arctic mammals is fairly well studied, partly because there are relatively few species. However, there are still some uncertainties, especially among the rodents, shrews and hares. Pleistocene isolation in different refugia, and Holocene isolation following sea level rise, may or may not have led to sufficient genetic differentiation to warrant species status (Jarrell & Fredga 1993, Edingsaas et al. 2004, Wilson & Reeder 2005, Hope et al. 2011). For this assessment we follow the nomenclature in Wilson & Reeder (2005).

The broad distributions of Arctic mammal species are fairly well known, especially for conspicuous and recognizable larger-bodied species, although the amount of fine-scale information on distribution varies by species. Our confidence in the broad distributions of small-bodied species (all terrestrial) is high. These patterns are largely extrapolated from locations of well-documented presence and absence, and consider likely barriers to dispersal (mainly stretches of ocean and major rivers). However, the detailed distributions of these small-bodied species remain poorly documented, because the animals are inconspicuous and have not been surveyed in a widespread and repeated fashion through this very extensive and relatively inaccessible biome. We rely on various standard sources for broad distribution patterns (Wilson & Reeder 2005, Andreev et al. 2006, MacDonald & Cook 2009, IUCN 2011), and also on detailed data from species experts.

We present the diversity of Arctic mammals as species richness within various geographic regions (Appendix 3.1). For terrestrial mammals, regional boundaries are primarily water bodies (oceans and large rivers) that coincide with the boundaries of distributions of a number of species, leading to a strong inference that the water bodies played a role in geographic isolation and, sometimes, speciation (e.g. Ehrich et al. 2000, Waltari et al. 2004). Occasionally, we also employ jurisdictional boundaries to define regions (e.g. Fennoscandia). For marine mammals, we present species richness within 12 marine regions defined generally by seas or archipelagos with some bathymetric or geographic separations.

The quality of information on abundance varies a great deal among species and regions. Some mammals are central to the well-being of northern peoples as sources of spiritual meaning, food, income from hunting and trapping and as competitors. These relationships can be very old, and deeply embedded in northern cultures. Vyacheslav Shadrin, a Yughagir elder from Kolyma region of Siberia says:

…when there is an earthquake, we say that the mammoth are running. We even have a word for this, holgot (Mustonen 2009).

Some species attract scientific attention because they are key players in the food web or have particular conservation concerns. However, we have very little or no detailed information for numerous other terrestrial and marine species. In addition, there is a relative lack of accessible, published information for species occurring in Russia.

We present current knowledge on distributions, richness and abundance by species or population, depending on the detail available. We organize this information in four broad sections:

  • (1) terrestrial herbivorous mammals,
  • (2) terrestrial insectivorous mammals,
  • (3) terrestrial carnivorous mammals, and
  • (4) marine mammals.



Valuable areas and productivity hotspots

Three types of habitat are particularly valuable due to their unique biological richness and large-scale influence on Arctic ecosystems: caribou calving grounds, coastal zones and margins of the sea ice-pack.

Migratory tundra caribou calving grounds require special attention. Caribou choose these fairly restricted ar eas because of high food quality and relatively low predation risk, and thereby maximize the survival and vigor of calves. Human activities and infrastructure (e.g. aircraft f light paths, roads, off-road vehicle use, pipelines) should be prohibited or strongly regulated in these landscapes during the calving seasons when the activities can readily disrupt the optimum bonding and behavior of cows and calves with negative consequences for calf recruitment. Calving grounds are site-specific by herd, though they do shift somewhat over time. Many are currently undergoing some mineral and hydrocarbon exploration and road development (e.g. Beverly) or are under such threat (e.g. Bathurst, Porcupine).

Coastal zones, especially over the relatively shallow continental shelf and banks, are particularly productive marine areas. Along coastlines, the mixing of marine water with nutrient-rich fresh water, from land-based drainages and melting sea ice, enhances productivity and attracts large concentrations of marine mammals. Migratory marine mammals rely on this spatially-concentrated ocean productivity for foraging opportunities. Deltas and offshore plumes from the major rivers (notably the Mackenzie and Lena) are heavily used feeding areas. Coastlines and nearshore ice and barrier islands are particularly important for polar bears, combining high-value habitats for reproduction and resting with relatively high marine productivity especially in spring and summer. Coastal zones are particularly at risk because expanding human activities (e.g. shipping, fishing, oil and gas developments, transportation infrastructure and settlements) are and will be concentrated in and beside these zones of high ecological productivity and easier access to resources.

Sea ice margins are also particularly productive marine areas that attract numerous marine and some terrestrial mammals. They include the geographically widespread ice margins of the Bering/Chukchi Seas, Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, E Greenland and the Barents Sea. These zones change position somewhat between years as patterns of ice melt change, and are likely to shift systematically in response to changing climate. Nevertheless, they require particular attention because of their importance to many marine mammals.

In winter, a particular set of sea ice margins is found at polynyas or flaw leads, where substantial areas of water remain open or only occasionally frozen due to particular combinations of wind and currents. These are important habitats for winter-resident Arctic marine and terrestrial mammals as well as seabirds. They are seasonally delimited habitats, requiring particular conservation attention in winter. Key examples of polynyas include North Water (N Baffin Bay), St. Lawrence Island (Bering Sea) and North East Water (NE coast Greenland); and of flaw leads include NE Chukchi Sea, Cape Bathurst (Beaufort Sea) and Laptev Sea.

While managers need to pay attention to habitats of high ecological value, conservation attention also needs to be focused on biological ‘hotspots’ that overlap areas of particular interest to oil, gas and mining industries, because of the increased disturbance that is likely to occur in those areas. These tend to be geographically large areas in the exploration phase, leading to site-specific developments.

Four regions appear to be of particular interest to the oil and gas industry at present: Barents Sea, Beaufort-Chukchi Seas, Baffin Bay and E Greenland. These regions deserve particular attention because the exploration, development and production phases of this industry may cause displacement of species from important feeding or breeding habitats, changes in the underwater acoustic environment, impacts to calving and migratory habitats, and potentially direct mortality or changes in vital rates due to collisions, oil spills or contamination. The risks of population declines for both marine and terrestrial mammals can only be addressed, and perhaps mitigated, through environmental assessments (including collection of new data not already available to resource managers); controls on the intensity, timing and structure of exploration and development activities; and dedicated work with local communities to ensure the implementation of cautious management and harvest plans for mammals that might be affected. Given the paucity of data on many Arctic mammal populations, it is difficult to detect population changes and attribute their cause to either human-induced or natural factors. Therefore, strengthened research and monitoring programs must precede and accompany proposed development activities in Arctic regions.

The global rush for minerals is resulting in many new mine developments in the Arctic. Each potential new mine site requires focused attention to determine its potential direct and indirect impact on terrestrial mammals. Marine mammals may also be impacted by increased shipping and activity in coastal zones, and various other factors resulting from industrial development and its infrastructure. Concerted efforts must be made to forecast the impact of any one development project, as well as the cumulative impacts in a particular region. Environmental impact assessments are a necessary component of our management, but the ability of these assessments to consider multiple scales of potential impacts over both time and space is limited and must be improved. Special attention should be given to the use of new technologies that reduce the extent of infrastructure required (e.g. air ships), and to operational measures that reduce the potential for changing mammal behavior (e.g. proper garbage management, controls on human harvesting of wildlife). Monitoring of Arctic mammals and potential impacts on them must be an integral and funded portion of any developments.


Key knowledge gaps

One major conclusion of this review is that detailed, long-term data on population trends for Arctic mammals are rare. There are no abundance or trend estimates for many key populations and species of marine (e.g. all of the ice-dependent pinniped populations and several polar bear populations) and terrestrial (e.g. Arctic wolf, many lemming populations) mammals. Demographic data are also absent for many species, and if available they are rarely of high quality. This is largely explained by high costs and logistical hurdles of monitoring populations in large and remote areas. Information on population trends is important for natural resource managers to take management actions when populations face single or cumulative impacts, and to measure recovery from any perturbation. Good population monitoring is the first requirement for biodiversity assessment, and our knowledge of the status and trends of Arctic species will remain relatively poor unless we invest more resources into monitoring their numbers and understanding their ecology.

Weather patterns and extreme weather events are prominent limiting factors for Arctic herbivores. Global climate patterns, such as the North Atlantic and Arctic Oscillations, affect seasonal weather patterns and therefore timing and productivity of plant growth over multi-annual and decadal periods. These relationships deserve increased attention including investigations of patterns in a greater diversity of weather-related phenomena that impact mammals (e.g. freezing rain and icing events, thaw-freeze cycles in winter, timing of snowmelt, timing of snow onset, taiga and tundra wild-fire frequency). Such investigations need to be coupled with long-term studies of how such weather phenomena are affecting demographic parameters in mammals (e.g. over-winter survival and reproductive output in rodents and lagomorphs, conception and calf survival in caribou and muskoxen). Northern community members who are nfrequently on the land can be employed in recording patterns of weather, especially unusual events, and animal responses (see Huntington, Chapter 19, for discussion of community-based monitoring).

Caribou herd viability, and the ability to monitor herds, depend on a good understanding of locations and temporal use of calving grounds by reproductive and barren cows. For some herds, this information is still unclear, but is crucial when population monitoring depends on calving ground counts. Improved mapping and tracking of calving grounds and the landscapes used by barren cows in the same season will allow more robust population estimation, and improved application of land management guidelines.

Cumulative impacts assessments of multiple direct and indirect anthropogenic activities over space and time need improvement. Given a general lack of predictive models for cumulative impacts assessment, we need new approaches to both detecting negative effects as quickly as possible, and combining effects in decision-making. For caribou, one approach lies in monitoring herd status by sampling individual health status (pregnancy rates, body condition, parasite load, and survival) integrated in energy allocation models (Russell et al. 2005), coupled with research on relationships between herd status and environmental factors such as weather, snow and fire.


Recommended conservation actions

The most urgent conservation need is a stabilization and reduction of greenhouse gases at the global scale, so that climate change can be slowed and limited in intensity worldwide. Continued increases in greenhouse gas production, mostly outside the Arctic, will exacerbate the ongoing disruption of Arctic ecosystem processes. Climate warming in the Arctic has had the most dramatic effects on snow, ice and water (the cryosphere) (AMAP 2011). These are prominent components of Arctic habitats, and consequently some Arctic mammal populations that are economically and culturally important will be significantly reduced in distribution and abundance. Icessociated mammals, especially polar bear and pinnipeds, are highly threatened by reductions in duration of the sea ice season and in spatial extent of summer ice. Some populations are at high risk of extirpation within decades. The probability of global extinction of an Arctic mammal species has not been estimated, but appears to be growing with the increasing pace of habitat and ecosystem change.

The variety of legislation, regulations and policies across the circumpolar Arctic needs to be harmonized, ideally with the assistance of the Arctic Council. Environmental legislation and regulations vary in strength and intensity across jurisdictions. These include: (1) environmental impact assessment for major industrial projects, (2) endangered species protection, (3) harvest management, (4) marine transportation safety, pollution and routing regulations, (5) offshore oil and gas drilling and extraction standards, and (6) identification of responsibility for providing resources for necessary studies before new anthropogenic activities occur. Without such harmonization, the level of environmental risk and consequent negative impact on a population will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and negative impacts in one region will affect other regions. For example, some jurisdictions require substantial environmental impact assessments where the risks to impacted mammal populations are minimized with mitigation measures imposed; other jurisdictions lack a robust assessment process. Transboundary populations may experience relatively heavy negative impacts in a jurisdiction with weaker legislation and regulations, despite strong conservation efforts in a jurisdiction with higher environmental standards. The chances of one jurisdiction suffering the consequences of poorer environmental standards in another jurisdiction will continue to increase as development proceeds.

A coordinated mammal population abundance monitoring plan needs to be developed, and implemented in the field, with the support of jurisdictions. Strategic attention should be focused on specific combinations of species and region from which most inferences can be drawn. Such a plan needs to build on long-term data sets and requires integration with existing local or national monitoring through the circumpolar Arctic. Particular attention to monitoring in Eurasia is warranted. Such monitoring plans have already been discussed for marine mammals such as belugas, ringed seals and polar bears, but none has actually been fully developed or implemented. Migratory tundra caribou are the subject of an international monitoring effort (CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment Network (CARMA)), but many other species are currently overlooked.

The Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program (CBMP) is a valuable start to the large task of archiving, reporting and making accessible data on population distribution and abundance for Arctic species. This program needs to be maintained and supported in its goal of better integration with field-based monitoring programs. However, merely tracking population size and demographic parameters is not enough. Monitoring must be designed to test alternative hypotheses about the role of limiting factors (e.g. weather, primary production, disturbance, harvest) on distribution and abundance. Hypotheses explaining past, present and future changes must be set and tested as integral parts of monitoring activities. Maximizing the number of counted populations is not as important as investigating limiting factors in conjunction with following a suite of strategically chosen populations.

In conjunction with abundance monitoring, all user groups need to collaborate in improved monitoring and record keeping of animal harvest levels across jurisdictions, so the sustainability of the total harvest can be assessed for biological populations. Harvest of wildlife is a critical component of human subsistence in the Arctic. Harvest can be a factor in population declines, and science-based harvest management can reduce the risk of population collapse and ensure that subsistence resources are available for future generations. Some components of these harvests are monitored by scientific or co-management committees. However, some are not monitored at all, and many of them involve transboundary populations. Harmonization of harvest reporting and documentation across jurisdictions would improve conservation and management regimes.

Previously depleted populations of harvested Arctic mammal species, and of species currently well below historical levels, need to be recovered wherever possible, especially where there is high likelihood that excessive human harvesting was (e.g. SW Greenland beluga), or still is (e.g. W Greenland walrus), a major factor in reducing abundance. The international moratorium on commercial whaling appears to have facilitated the recovery of some bowhead whale sub-populations (George et al. 2004, Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2007). Harvest restrictions also can assist caribou population recovery at low density, but the inherently cyclic nature of caribou population abundance confounds the definition of a targeted abundance for recovery and complicates the suite of management actions to facilitate recovery.

There is an urgent need for the establishment of a comprehensive set of protected areas, based on eco-regional representation, biodiversity hotspot analyses, the subsistence economy of northern peoples, and climate change risk assessment. Protected areas with minimal human activity are valuable as ecological benchmarks for understanding ecological processes and as refuge areas during key seasonal periods in the life cycle. If chosen well they can also be relative refuges from the effects of climate change. Northern peoples often harvest mammals in traditional areas related to animal concentrations and accessibility, and precluding other developments to maintain harvests in these areas is a strong rationale for protection. There are a considerable number of land-based protected areas, but relatively few marine protected areas in the Arctic. As climate change is known to be causing environmental changes throughout Arctic ecosystems, some administrative flexibility is needed to ensure that protected areas can be modified or adaptively managed to continue to cover the necessary areas, both now and in the future. Protected areas have spatial but also potentially temporal dimensions. For example, calving grounds of migratory tundra caribou need strong protection during the calving season, but could conceivably sustain some human activities and functioning infrastructure in other seasons. 


Other key messages

Many Arctic mammal populations are co-managed between national or sub-national government agencies and indigenous government or community agencies. Knowledge derived from both community experience and scientific studies are expected to contribute to decision making. Smooth decision making has been thwarted in some cases by breakdowns in communication and trust. Solutions are not always clear, but do depend on open-mindedness, honest communication and joint realization that the sustainability of the population is a shared goal of all involved.

Scientific understanding of the direct and indirect effects of climate change and other stressors on Arctic ecosystems is still in its infancy. Society’s ability to manage change and implement a valid conservation agenda depends on increased funding for both hypothesis-driven monitoring and basic research into factors driving the distribution and abundance of Arctic mammals.

The Arctic encompasses many of the last wilderness regions on the planet, with species that are marvels of adaptation to difficult conditions, and ingenious human cultures that are intimately linked to harvesting mammals. Conserving the biological and cultural diversity of the Arctic deserves society’s utmost efforts and attention in these changing times.

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