Arctic Marine Mammal Habitat Selection

Submitted by: Natalie Asselin
Location or Study Area: Focus on Canadian Arctic



Arctic marine mammals have evolved to exploit, and in some cases to depend on, the snow covered sea ice environment. As climate change is impacting the snow and sea ice regime of the Arctic, research is needed to assess the current habitat needs of these species and predict how, and where, these needs may be met in the future. In addition, the changes in sea ice are contributing to a renewed interest in industrial development in the north. Understanding the impacts of climate change and industrial activity on Arctic marine mammals is particularly important as many of these animals are the target of subsistence hunts by northern indigenous peoples. These hunts serve as both a food source and a cultural activity. Within CEOS, researchers focused on marine mammals are uniquely placed to collaborate with other scientists focused on understanding the physical and chemical properties of the Arctic marine environment.

Project Description

Habitat selection is the result of multiple, interacting factors including prey distributions, predation risk and reproductive status. Thus, CEOS researchers focused on Arctic marine mammal habitat selection seek to both describe and understand the habitat use of these species. This understanding occurs at multiple spatial scales (for instance at the small scale such as an estuary or large scale such as Hudson Bay), as well as temporal scales (i.e. seasonal, yearly, decadal). Current research projects at CEOS target habitats of belugas (Delphinapterus leucas), narwhals (Monodon monoceros), bowheads (Balaena mysticetus), ringed seals (Phoca hispida) and polar bears (Ursus maritimus).  



Asselin NC, Barber DG, Richard PR and Ferguson SH (2012) Occurrence, distribution and behaviour of beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) and bowhead (Balaena mysticetus) whales at the Franklin Bay ice edge in June 2008. Arctic 65: 121-132.

Asselin NC, Barber DG, Stirling I, Ferguson SH and Richard PR (2011) Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) habitat selection in the eastern Beaufort Sea in spring, 1975 to 1979. Polar Biology 34: 1973-1988. doi:10.1007/s00300-011-0990-5 

Asselin NC, Ferguson SH, Richard PR and Barber DG (2012) Results of narwhal (Monodon monoceros) aerial surveys in northern Hudson Bay, August 2011. DFO Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat Research Document 037: iii+23p.

Barber DG, Asplin MG, Papakyriakou TN, Miller L, Else BGT, Iacozza J, Mundy CJ, Gosslin M, Asselin NC and Ferguson SH, et al. (2012). Consequences of change and variability in sea ice on marine ecosystem and biogeochemical processes during the 2007–2008 Canadian International Polar Year program. Climatic Change. DOI: 10.1007/s10584-012-0482-9

Barber DG and Iacozza J (2004) Historical analysis of sea ice conditions in M’Clintock Channel and the Gulf of Boothia, Nunavut: Implications for ringed seal and polar bear habitat. Arctic 57(1): 1-14.

Barber DG, Iacozza J and Walker AE (2003) Estimation of snow water equivalent using microwave radiometry over Arctic first-year sea ice. Hydrological Processes17: 3503-3517. 

Ferguson SH and Higdon JW (2006) How seals divide up the world: environment, life-history, and conservation. Oecologia 150:318-329.

Ferguson SH and Higdon JW (2013) Grouping world cetaceans according to life-history characteristics indicates two divergent strategies. Canadian Wildlife Biology & Management 2(2): 51-66. 

Ferguson SH, Asselin NC, Loseto LL and Higdon JW (2012) Team 5- Marine mammals. In: On the Edge: From Knowledge to Action During the Fourth International Polar Year Circumpolar Flaw Lead System Study (2007-2008). Edited by: Barber D, Tjaden T, Leitch D, Barber L and Chan W. University of Manitoba. pp. 95-108.

Ferguson SH, Dueck L, Loseto LL and Luque SP (2010) Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) seasonal selection of sea ice. Marine Ecology Progress Series 411: 285-297. 

Iacozza J and Barber DG (2001) Ablation patterns of snow cover over first-year sea ice in the Canadian Arctic. Hydrological Processes15(18): 3559-3569.

Iacozza J and Barber DG (1999) An examination of the distribution of snow on sea ice. Atmosphere-Ocean 37(1); 21-51.

Iacozza J and Barber DG (2010), An examination of snow redistribution over smooth land-fast sea ice. Hydrological Processes 24: 850–865. doi: 10.1002/hyp.7526

Langlois A, Scharien R, Geldsetzer T, Iacozza J, Barber DG, and Yackel J (2008) Estimation of snow water equivalent over first-year sea ice using AMSR-E and surface observations. Remote Sensing of Environment 112(9): 3656-3667.

Stirling I, Lunn NJ and Iacozza J (1999) Long-term trends in the population ecology of polar bears in western Hudson Bay in relation to climate change. Arctic 52 (3): 294-306.

Stirling I, Lunn NJ, Iacozza J, Elliot C and Obbard M (2004) Polar bear distribution and abundance on the southwestern Hudson Bay coast during open water season, in relation to population trends and annual ice patterns. Arctic 57(1): 15-27.


Principal Investigators (CEOS): Steve Ferguson and David Barber

Program Lead: Natalie Asselin

UM Participants: David Barber, Steve Ferguson, Lisa Loseto, Natalie Asselin, Claire Hornby, John Iacozza, Krista Kenyon

Funding/Other Support

Arctic Science Partnership; ArcticNet Network of Centres of Excellence; Canada Excellence Research Chair program; Canada Foundation for Innovation; Canada Research Chairs program; Cumulative Impacts Monitoring Program; Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada; Fisheries Joint Management Committee; Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; Program of Energy Research and Development; University of Manitoba


Aerial photo of an aggregation of beluga whales in Le Feuvre Inlet, NU, August 2013. Credit: Natalie Asselin.


Beluga whales. Credit: Gretchen Freund.


John Iacozza running the Surface Ice Sensor used to measure the snow and sea ice thickness and roughness. This sensor utilizes electromagnetic energy operating at 9 kHz and performs real-time inversion for estimation of snow and sea ice thickness and conductivity. Credit: Scott Halloday (2008).


Two observers [Lisa Loseto and Carie Hoover (L-R)] during an aerial survey for beluga whales at the Mackenzie River ice edge, June 2013. Credit: Claire Hornby.