Getting Wise to the Owl, a Charismatic Sentry in Climate Change
CHARLO, Mont. — For 19 years, the owl researcher Denver Holt has journeyed to Barrow, Alaska, each summer to map out the predator-prey relationship between the lemmings that crawl across the tundra and the white owls that hunt them from above.
As he prepares for his 20th field season in the Arctic, he says that the snowy owl has a role to play in understanding ecological changes in one of the fastest changing places in the world. “When lemmings are doing well, everything is doing well — eider ducks, sandhill cranes, arctic fox and weasels,” Mr. Holt said. “If climate change results in habitat changes and it affects the lemmings, it will show up in the snowy owls because 90 percent of their diet is lemmings. The owls are the key to everything else.”
Twenty years of data provides an unusually deep look at a species’ population trends. And more research on snowy owls in other parts of the world — they are found throughout the arctic region — could flag changes in the global arctic ecosystem even without other indicators.
A male snowy owl took flight in the Alaskan arctic. More Photos »