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An avian terrestrial predator of the Arctic relies on the marine ecosystem during winter


  • Jean-François Therrien,

  • Gilles Gauthier,

  • Joël Bêty

J.-F. Therrien, ( and G. Gauthier, Dept de Biol. and Centre d'etudes Nordiques, 1045 Av. de la Médecine, Univ. Laval, Quebec city, QC, G1V 0A6, Canada. – J. Bêty, Dept de Biol., Chimie et Geogr. and Centre d'etudes Nordiques, Univ. du Quebec à Rimouski, QC, G5L3A1, Canada.


Top predators of the arctic tundra are facing a long period of very low prey availability during winter and subsidies from other ecosystems such as the marine environment may help to support their populations. Satellite tracking of snowy owls, a top predator of the tundra, revealed that most adult females breeding in the Canadian Arctic overwinter at high latitudes in the eastern Arctic and spend several weeks (up to 101 d) on the sea-ice between December and April. Analysis of high-resolution satellite images of sea-ice indicated that owls were primarily gathering around open water patches in the ice, which are commonly used by wintering seabirds, a potential prey. Such extensive use of sea-ice by a tundra predator considered a small mammal specialist was unexpected, and suggests that marine resources subsidize snowy owl populations in winter. As sea-ice regimes in winter are expected to change over the next decades due to climate warming, this may affect the wintering strategy of this top predator and ultimately the functioning of the tundra ecosystem.