Human Impacts

How Do Human Activities Affect Marine Mammals?

Marine mammals face numerous human-induced obstacles in their physical environment, from increasing noise to loss of sea ice. We are studying how these changes affect the health, behaviour, and food requirements of individual marine mammals, and how they ultimately impact entire populations.

Projects and Recent Papers

Physiological capacities and constraints of ice-dependent Alaskan seals (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Resting and swimming metabolic rates in juvenile walruses (Odobenus rosmarus).
Rosen, D.A.S. 2021.
Marine Mammal Science 37:162-172.
Changes in Arctic ice conditions have raised concerns regarding potential impacts on energy expenditure and food requirements of walruses. Modelling the repercussions of environmental changes requires accurate species-specific measures of bioenergetic expenditures. This is particularly true for walruses, who have a unique anatomy and foraging ecology from other pinnipeds. This study measured resting metabolic rate (RMR) and subsurface swimming metabolism in two juvenile walruses over a 13-month period. The walruses had relatively low RMR compared to studies of other young pinnipeds. RMR was greater for the male than the female, as expected given his larger size; the reverse was true on a mass-specific basis. There was also considerable variability in RMR for each walrus during the year that could not be accounted for by changes in body mass. Metabolism while swimming was about twice RMR, and locomotor costs were higher than generally predicted for other marine mammals. The lower calculated swimming efficiency may reflect the fact that walruses are not “high velocity” pursuit predators. The estimates of metabolic expenditure obtained in this study for young walruses are invaluable for quantifying the energetic consequences of behavioral changes induced by environmental shifts in the wild.

keywords     bioenergetics, metabolism, swimming, walrus
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Molting strategies of Arctic seals drive annual patterns in metabolism.
Thometz, N.M., H. Hermann-Sorensen, B. Russell, D.A.S. Rosen and C. Reichmuth. 2021.
Conservation Physiology, 9(1), coaa112.
Arctic seals, including spotted (Phoca largha), ringed (Pusa hispida), and bearded (Erignathus barbatus) seals, are directly affected by sea ice loss. These species use sea ice as a haul-out substrate for various critical functions, including their annual molt. Continued environmental warming will inevitably alter the routine behavior and overall energy budgets of Arctic seals, but it is difficult to quantify these impacts as their metabolic requirements are not well known—due in part to the difficulty of studying wild individuals. Thus, data pertaining to species-specific energy demands is urgently needed to better understand the physiological consequences of rapid environmental change. We used open-flow respirometry over a four-year period to track fine-scale, longitudinal changes in the resting metabolic rate (RMR) of four spotted, three ringed, and one bearded seal trained to participate in research. Simultaneously, we collected complementary physiological and environmental data. Species-specific metabolic demands followed expected patterns based on body size, with the largest species, the bearded seal, exhibiting the highest absolute RMR (0.48±0.04 L O2 min-1) and the lowest mass-specific RMR (4.10±0.47 ml O2 min-1 kg-1), followed by spotted (absolute: 0.33±0.07 L O2 min-1; mass-specific: 6.13±0.73 ml O2 min-1 kg-1) and ringed (absolute: 0.20±0.04 L O2 min-1; mass-specific: 7.01±1.38 ml O2 min-1 kg-1) seals. Further, we observed clear and consistent annual patterns in RMR that related to the distinct molting strategies of each species. For species that molted over relatively short intervals—spotted (33±4 days) and ringed (28±6 days) seals—metabolic demands increased markedly in association with molt. In contrast, the bearded seal exhibited a prolonged molting strategy (119±2 days), which appeared to limit the overall cost of molting as indicated by a relatively stable annual RMR. These findings highlight energetic trade-offs associated with different molting strategies and provide quantitative data that can be used to assess species-specific vulnerabilities to changing conditions.

keywords     Arctic seals, spotted seal, ringed seal, bearded seal, sea ice, molt, climate change, respirometry, resting metabolic rate, energetic trade-offs
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Physiological constraints and energetic costs of diving behaviour in marine mammals: a review of studies using trained Steller sea lions diving in the open ocean.
Rosen, D.A.S., A.G. Hindle, C. Gerlinsky, E. Goundie, G.D. Hastie and A.W. Trites. 2017.
Journal of Comparative Physiology B 187:29-50.
Marine mammals are characterized as having physiological specializations that maximize the use of oxygen stores to prolong time spent under water. However, it has been difficult to undertake the requisite controlled studies to determine the physiological limitations and trade-offs that marine mammals face while diving in the wild under varying environmental and nutritional conditions. For the past decade, Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) trained to swim and dive in the open ocean away from the physical confines of pools participated in studies that investigated the interactions between diving behaviour, energetic costs, physiological constraints, and prey availability. Many of these studies measured the cost of diving to understand how it varies with behaviour and environmental and physiological conditions. Collectively, these studies show that the type of diving (dive bouts or single dives), the level of underwater activity, the depth and duration of dives, and the n utritional status and physical condition of the animal affect the cost of diving and foraging. They show that dive depth, dive and surface duration, and the type of dive result in physiological adjustments (heart rate, gas exchange) that may be independent of energy expenditure. They also demonstrate that changes in prey abundance and nutritional status cause sea lions to alter the balance between time spent at the surface acquiring oxygen (and offloading CO2 and other metabolic by-products) and time spent at depth acquiring prey. These new insights into the physiological basis of diving behaviour further our understanding of the potential scope for behavioural responses of marine mammals to environmental changes, the energetic significance of these adjustments, and the consequences of approaching physiological limits.
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Dive, food, and exercise effects on blood microparticles in Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus): exploring a biomarker for decompression sickness.
Fahlman, A., M.J. Moore, A.W. Trites, D.A. Rosen, M. Haulena, N. Waller, T. Neale, M. Yang and S.R. Thom. 2016.
American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 310:R596-R601.
Recent studies of stranded marine mammals indicate that exposure to underwater military sonar may induce pathophysiological responses consistent with decompression sickness (DCS). However, DCS has been difficult to diagnose in marine mammals. We investigated whether blood microparticles (MPs, measured as number/l plasma), which increase in response to decompression stress in terrestrial mammals, are a suitable biomarker for DCS in marine mammals. We obtained blood samples from trained Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus, 4 adult females) wearing time-depth recorders that dove to predetermined depths (either 5 or 50 meters). We hypothesized that MPs would be positively related to decompression stress (depth and duration underwater). We also tested the effect of feeding and exercise in isolation on MPs using the same blood sampling protocol. We found that feeding and exercise had no effect on blood MP levels, but that diving caused MPs to increase. However, blood MP levels did not correlate with diving depth, relative time underwater, and presumed decompression stress, possibly indicating acclimation following repeated exposure to depth.
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