Harbor Seals as Sentinels of Ice Dynamics in Tidewater Glacier Fjords

Jamie N Womble, Perry J Williams, Robert McNabb, Anupma Prakash, Rudiger Gens, Ben Sedinger, Cheyenne Acevedo

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Tidewater glaciers calve icebergs into the marine environment which serve as pupping, molting, and resting habitat for some of the largest seasonal aggregations of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) in the world. Although they are naturally dynamic, advancing and retreating in response to local climatic and fjord conditions, most tidewater glaciers around the world are thinning and retreating. Climate change models predict continued loss of land-based ice with unknown impacts to organisms such as harbor seals that rely on glacier ice as habitat for critical life history events. To understand the impacts of changing ice availability on harbor seals, we quantified seasonal and annual changes in ice habitat in Johns Hopkins Inlet, a tidewater glacier fjord in Glacier Bay National Park in southeastern Alaska. We conducted systematic aerial photographic surveys (n = 55) of seals and ice during the pupping (June; n = 30) and molting (August; n = 25) periods from 2007 to 2014. Object-based image analysis was used to quantify the availability and spatial distribution of floating ice in the fjord. Multivariate spatial models were developed for jointly modeling stage-structured seal location data and ice habitat. Across all years, there was consistently more ice in the fjord during the pupping season in June than during the molting season in August, which was likely driven by seasonal variation in physical processes that influence the calving dynamics of tidewater glaciers. Nonpup harbor seals and ice were correlated during the pupping season, but this correlation was reduced during the molting season suggesting that harbor seals may respond to changes in habitat differently depending upon trade-offs associated with life history events, such as pupping and molting, and energetic costs and constraints associated with the events.
Original languageEnglish
Article number634541
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
Publication statusPublished - 3 May 2021


  • fjord
  • habitat
  • harbor seal
  • ice
  • Phoca vitulina richardii
  • tidewater glacier
  • trade-offs


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