In a new feature, our Biotechnology undergraduate team members have each chosen one of the ReelLife Science topics, and researched and written a short article. We hope you enjoy them, learn a little from them and perhaps get some inspiration for your videos! First up is Alex Corrigan with “Life on the Edge in the Polar North”.

(photo by Max Edin National Geographic)
(photo by Max Edin National Geographic)

Svalbard is an archipelago of three main islands, Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet and Edegøya in the Arctic Ocean far to the North of mainland Norway. These beautiful but isolated islands are sparsely populated by humans, but are home to a wide variety of specialised animals who eke out a living in the harsh polar climate of the Arctic Circle.

(photo from svalbard.travelize.se)
(photo from svalbard.travelize.se)

The islands of Svalbard encompass a landscape of high mountain ranges, deep valleys and fjords, with glaciers and ice-flows, which cover up to 60% of the terrain. The archipelago is under the grip of the harsh Arctic Climate , with its midnight sun and total darkness in the winter months. Average winter temperatures can dip as low as -18°C with summers only reaching a frosty 2-4°C.

It’s hard to imagine life flourishing in these conditions, yet it does. Svalbard is a breeding ground for many species of seabirds and also hosts larger creatures such as reindeer, Arctic foxes, polar bears and marine mammals such as walruses and seals. There are no less than seven national parks in Svalbard to protect the largely untouched, yet fragile, ecosystems and habitats.

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Svalbard is home to over 30 species of birds. Most are migratory, such as the Northern Fulmar, Snow Bunting and Black-legged Kittiwake. The Arctic Tern (pictured above) migrates here in summer, all the way from Antarctica, the longest regular migration of any known animal! In summer, the islands are filled with nesting birds, at sea and on the cliffs, numbering up to 20 million individuals by late June.  The activity of these nesting birds is vital to the maintenance of the flora and fauna of the island.

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The birds’ faeces and detritus add minerals from their fish diet to the cliffs and surrounding lands, nourishing the soil and leaving it lush and green. This feeds plants which flourish in turn feeding the herbivorous land animals such as reindeer. Opportunistic predators such as the Arctic Fox (pictured above) also feast on the young birds, to feed their own young and fatten up before winter approaches.

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Biodiversity is at its highest here in the summer months, when the animals make use of the long hours of sunlight, abundance of plants and warmer temperatures, to mate and feed up for the winter ahead. In contrast, very few animals winter on Svalbard. Only the hardiest animals can survive the darkness and the intensely cold temperatures and frozen ground. The Svalbard Reindeer (pictured above) is one of these. They spend their winters mainly on steep ridges and plateaus with little snow cover and sparse vegetation, when summer returns they migrate back down to the plains and valleys near bird cliffs to feast on the nutritious vegetation.

Other inhabitants of the Svalbard Archipelago include Marine Mammals such as Walruses, Ring-necked seals and white Beluga whales as well as the astounding Narwhal which possesses a large unicorn-like horn. This “horn” is actually an extended tooth, and may play a role in detecting ice, helping the Narwhal in its migration to open waters, as the video above explains. These mammals can be found around the fjords and straits of the archipelago, the seals and walruses also tend to congregate in large mating colonies by the coast and glaciers where they raise their young.

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The abundance of different varieties of seals makes the Archipelago a haven for one of its most famous residents: The Polar bear!

Known by some as the “King of the Arctic” this majestic bear spends its winters out on the frozen waves of the Arctic Ocean hunting for seals. The bears are most active in winter though, as the ice-sheet is where they hunt and build fat reserves for when the ice melts. In summer they mate and raise their young in dens, spending most of the rest of the time in a semi-hibernation prowling the islands and resting.

Another advantage of life in Svalbard for the Bears is the lack of human settlement in most areas. Polar bears are by far the most formidable inhabitant of the Arctic Circle and are feared and avoided by humans as they pose a threat to domesticated animals and people themselves. Most of the trouble caused by bears is due to young rowdy males or females protecting cubs. As you can see in this video shot in Northern Canada, adult males can be quite docile, even befriending sled dogs!

I hope you enjoyed this piece! To find out more on the topic of Svalbard and its wildlife be sure to visit some of my references.

http://www.svalbard2009.com/animals-on-svalbard/
http://cruise-handbook.npolar.no/en/svalbard/wildlife.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svalbard

Alex Corrigan

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