Environmental extremes versus ecological extremes: impact of a massive iceberg on the population dynamics of a high-level Antarctic marine predator

Thierry Chambert, Jay J. Rotella, Robert A. Garrott


Extreme events have been suggested to play a disproportionate role in shaping ecological processes, but our understanding of the types of environmental conditions that elicit extreme consequences in natural ecosystems is limited. Here, we investigated the impact of a massive iceberg on the dynamics of a population of Weddell seals. Reproductive rates of females were reduced, but survival appeared unaffected. We also found suggestive evidence for a prolonged shift towards higher variability in reproductive rates. The annual number of females attending colonies showed unusual swings during the iceberg period, a pattern that was apparently the consequence of changes in sea-ice conditions. In contrast to the dramatic effects that were recorded in nearby populations of emperor penguins, our results suggest that this unusual environmental event did not have an extreme impact on the population of seals in the short-term, as they managed to avoid survival costs and were able to rapidly re-achieve high levels of reproduction by the end of the perturbation. Nevertheless, population projections suggest that even this modest impact on reproductive rates could negatively affect the population in the long run if such events were to occur more frequently, as is predicted by models of climate change.

  • Received July 25, 2012.
  • Accepted September 3, 2012.
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