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Climate change and coastal wetland salinization: Physiological and ecological consequences for Arctic waterfowl

May 27, 2023
  1. Coastal wetland salinization related to warming climate has the potential to impact ecological systems globally. In Alaska, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YKD) supports large concentrations of breeding water birds and is an ecologically important area for conservation of migratory bird biodiversity. On the YKD, the majority of waterfowl nest in low elevation coastal tundra where storm surges drive saline water into terrestrial wetland habitats. Because newly hatched water birds lack functional salt glands to process saline water, salinization may negatively impact their growth and survival.
  2. We investigated potential demographic impacts of wetland salinization by conducting controlled physiological experiments to determine consequences of saline water exposure to spectacled Somateria fischeri and Steller's eider Polysticta stelleri ducklings, and analysed habitat suitability based on experimentally defined tolerance thresholds and sampled wetland salinity levels.
  3. We found physiological and behavioural pathologies in <1 week old ducklings at exposure levels of 6 parts per thousand (ppt), and found some evidence of reduced growth in ducklings first exposed after 1 week of age. We conclude that the acute toxicity threshold for ducklings <1 week of age is ≤6 ppt.
  4. We found that the area of coastal tundra where wetland salinity exceeded 6 ppt varied considerably among years, suggesting that some portion of the breeding range is unsuitable for rearing ducklings in some years. However, we also found that most eiders in most years nested in areas with salinity at or exceeding the tolerance threshold for ducklings, suggesting that nesting eiders do not appear to avoid saline habitats. We suggest that localized fresh water refugia currently may allow resilience to salinization during the critical period.
  5. Understanding how species and habitats respond to climate driven changes is essential for predicting future patterns of distribution and abundance, and is necessary for making informed decisions about conservation priorities. Our study provides insights into the extent of wetland salinization in Alaska, mechanism of impact and current ecological consequences on avian communities depending on these habitats. With ongoing climate change, the probability of species crossing physiological tolerance thresholds of wetland salinity may change in the future.
Publication Year 2023
Title Climate change and coastal wetland salinization: Physiological and ecological consequences for Arctic waterfowl
DOI 10.1111/1365-2435.14363
Authors Tuula E. Hollmen, Paul L. Flint, Sadie Ulman, H.M. Wilson, Courtney Amundson, Erik E, Osnas
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Functional Ecology
Index ID 70243994
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Ecosystems