Reprinted with permission from Polar Ecology Letters, Vol 12, Issue 25, pp. 2016.
Dear esteemed colleagues,
It is with mounting chagrin that, as a scholar of arctic matters, I have come to understand that an assortment of unhappy eventualities have coalesced to create the need for an emergency expedition into the northernmost climes of our planet. Evidence indicates that the results of global climate change may be having drastic negative affects on a little known species which provides critical ecosystem services to human populations in the lower latitudes. Still, while the myriad conditions that have sparked the need for this excursion are unwelcome, the findings from such a trek could be joyous indeed.
Further, the very climate conditions affecting this most mysterious species may, fortuitously, allow for success of this study. This year has the least recorded sea ice of all time, tied only with the minimum extent in 2007. This loss of permanent polar ice has decreased the search area to such an extent that it may be possible, for the first time, to encounter enough individuals of the species to provide a true picture of their population abundance and distribution. Finally, an expedition mounted late in the year coincides with a theorized yearly congregation of individuals near the pole, further decreasing the critical survey area.
Therefore, though I am loath at my advanced age to venture again to the pole, I feel it is my duty to spur the community of arctic scholars, adventurers, roustabouts and hangers-on to organize an expedition post-haste…preferably before Dec. 25th, 2016.
The reasons for this excursion, the importance of the expected results, and the makeup of the required team, is described in the following monograph. I do hope that it will have the intended affect of spurring immediate action to ameliorate this potentially cataclysmic global ecological cascade.
K.K. Claus, Ph.D.
Julenissen endowed professor of Polar Ecology and Ecosystem Studies (emeritus)
Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, Norway
Climate Change Affects on Polar Fauna: Potential disruption of mid-winter ecosystem services
This year has seen a host of unprecedented climate events. While fires rage across the Appalachian southeast, and record-breaking rain drenches the Northwest I sat, last night, snug and ready for a long winters nap, happily dozing while puffing my pipe and pondering the fact that the polar temperatures this year are a full 20-30 degrees above average. Then suddenly, what to my wandering mind should appear, but the thought that climate changes at the poles might affect human populations in the middle latitudes sooner, and with greater impact, than any of us have suspected!
How, I ask, has the field maintained such studied ignorance to the most important ecosystem services that the poles provide to each and every man, woman, girl, and boy each winter! We have painstakingly endeavored to catalog such minutia as the affect of climate on arctic cod reproduction, and the distributional changes of small arctic mammals with climate warming. We have even cataloged seemingly minor, indirect species interactions in the high arctic. While these are noble pursuits, we have inexplicably maintained a stubborn disregard for the far reaching ecosystem services provided by H. artifex septentrionalis and other related sub-species.
Though their phylogeny is hotly debated, and they may in fact have more in common with the genus Pumilus spp., their contribution to the human population worldwide is undeniable. Possibly the worlds most prolific and least understood ecosystem engineers they are also the best example of evolutionary altruism to date.
H. artifex septentrionalis spends 364 days each year industriously turning whatever
raw materials are at hand in their arctic environs into items useful to H. sapiens sapiens in their various habitats worldwide. Over the span of 24 hours in late December, these little known arctic populations distribute their years work to H. sapiens sapiens, seemingly without any expectation of the usual mutualistic service-resource relationships. This feat is carried out in an apparent symbiotic relationship with two other species.
The first symbiont is an organism purportedly also of the genus Homo but exhibiting behavior quite unlike other members of the genus, including flight, extremely rapid and precise migratory homing, and apparent psionic interactions with juvenile H. sapiens. The second is with C. Rangifer tarandus, a common arctic ruminant. This purported subspecies differs in significant ways from the common form in it’s propensity to venture to much higher latitudes (indeed onto the polar ice cap) than other populations and a remarkable but rare trait of red, luminous noses which may be an unfixed genetic trait under selection or perhaps the results of a respiratory infection.
H. artifex septentrionalis depends on large quantities of simple carbohydrates despite the fact that the majority of forage available is animal based and high in proteins and fat. Whether the population depends on an unknown source of forage, or has developed unique external or metabolic methods for converting crude protein and fat into refined carbohydrates is as yet unknown. However loss of sea ice habitat due to climate change is likely decreasing the available forage (and available raw materials they require as ecosystem engineers).
The potential disruption of food due to climate change at the pole could create a devastating fall in population abundance. While lack of raw materials may play less of a role in maintaining population abundance, if raw materials fall below some unknown critical threshold it could disrupt the species signature behavior, the yearly altruistic exchange of goods, creating bottom-up effects on human populations with potentially wide ranging effects.
Clearly, understanding the affect of climate change on H. artifex septentrionalis has immense implications, both for the future survival of the species and for ecological dynamics in disparate environments worldwide. The time to act is now, my fellow scientists!
Makeup and Timing of the Required Polar Expedition Team
While I hope that the ecological data that exists is voluminous enough to spur my colleagues to immediate action, two points are worth re-iterating regarding the timing of the expedition.
First, it is believed that the population congregates near the pole during the months leading up to Dec. 25th, after which they rapidly disperse (likely living along or in pairs under the ice) as they are rarely observed until the following winter. Thus, to minimize the search area, it is critical that the expedition commence in time to reach the pole before Dec. 25th, 2016.
Second, winter will minimize the difficulty of travelling over pack ice which is becoming notoriously difficult to navigate on foot due to the extent of “rotten” ice due to warming. I cannot stress enough that a full inventory of the species and it’s habitat has not been possible using remote imaging or visual surveys from ice-breaking vessels. This must be done the old-fashioned way despite the risk and toil involved.
The difficulty of the journey will require the team to be populated with the strongest among you. This trek will prize fortitude, sisu, and specific ecological aptitudes above comfort. There will be no time for egg nog, sugarplums, or chestnuts over an open fire after a long days work. Participants must be willing to abandon the safety of hearth and home, and the prospect of warm tea on Christmas morning with family, for a holiday meal of lukewarm coffee and half-frozen MRE’s eaten on windswept pack-ice far from home.
Successful applicants, however, will realize that future Christmas celebrations can only be ensured by their good work. Foregoing Christmas stockings and spiced cider this year in favor of physically demanding and intellectually rewarding field work may be what stands in the face of a generation or more of lost holiday seasons in the future if an H. artifex septentrionalis population crash were to occur.
Provisioning should follow established guidelines for cold-weather arctic and antarctic expeditions with one exception. H. artifex septentrionalis is remarkably difficult to capture and therefore a large amount of carbohydrate rich bait must be provisioned. These bait foods should contain high sugar content augmented by the attractant properties of extracts of M. balsamea Willd. Examples are pictured.
Finally, attention should be paid to several inter-disciplinary needs in staffing. Clearly experts in landscape and population ecology of polar mammals will be necessary additions to the team. Additionally, however, experts in psionic and pseudo-psionic properties of animal behavior will be needed as theorietical studies indicate that septentrionalis and their associated symbionts possesses remarkable abilities to anticipate behaviors of other animals which have complicated surveys in the past. Finally, while the relationship is likely phylogenetically distant, septentrionalis is likely of the genus Homo. Thus, experts in hominid behavior and evolution should be included. Finally, the mutualistic and altruistic aspects of this group of inter-dependent species is unknown but potentially unique. Experts in mutualistic and symbiotic behaviors and evolution should play a significant part in designing and carrying out this work.
The significance of this work to further our understanding of high-latitude ecology is groundbreaking. This is an opportunity to understand an ecosystem that has been, whether intentionally or not, largely ignored by the scientific community. Further, the stakes could not be higher. Human populations rely, culturally at least if not in terms of subsistence, on the ecosystem services provided by H. artifex septentrionalis and its related symbiotic species. The polar conditions that have spurred this potential ecological calamity have also provided the conditions that will allow science to proceed in this area. The time is upon us and we, as a field, must seize the moment!