During 30 years of scientific and volunteer expeditions, the naturalists of the Arctic Ecology Research Group (GREA) have acquired a unique knowledge of the ecology of the Arctic regions. The results of their work has been published in the most prestigious scientific journals.
Since 1990, Olivier Gilg and Brigitte Sabard have organized and taken part in twenty of the GREA expeditions to Greenland, Svalbard, Siberia, the Canadian Arctic and Alaska (along with their son Vladimir since 2003). Adrian Aebischer et Nette Levermann have also participated in several of these GREA expeditions to Greenland.
Main scientific program: “In search of the Ivory Gull”
Global change will affect Arctic ecosystems faster and more heavily than anywhere else on Earth. To survive, species should shift their distribution ranges towards the North or to higher altitudes.
The pure white Ivory gull is definitely the most emblematic but also the most endangered Arctic seabird, facing serious risk of extinction due to climate change. It already breeds on the highest mountains and on the northernmost Arctic lands. Hence, it might not be able to relocate its colonies northward or at higher altitude. Furthermore, like the Polar Bear, it exclusively feeds in the pack-ice zone which could disappear completely in summer by 2070.
In 1980, the Ivory gull world population was estimated between 20-25000 pairs but several colonies are still uncharted in Greenland.
Current population trends from Canada are alarming: 85% of the birds have apparently disappeared for the last 20 years.
To improve our knowledge of this poorly studied species and ultimately draft a conservation plan with Canadian, Norwegian and Russian colleagues, we will visit the highest (Nunataks) and northernmost (Peary Land) areas in Greenland to:
• locate new colonies to improve our estimate of its world population size
• monitor known colonies to assess its population trends
• document its habitat use (versus pack ice conditions) using 12g satellite transmitters
• run demographic models to assess its extinction risk through a ringing program (initiated in 2003)
• investigate site fidelity and dispersion rates to other colonies to assess its ability to relocate to new breeding places.
(collaboration with Dr Vidar BAKKEN and Hallward STROM , Norsk Polarinstitutt, Tromso, Dr David BOERTMANN, Greenland Environmental Research Institute, Dr Kaj KAMPP, Zoological Museum Copenhagen), Dr Grant GILCHRIST, Canadian Wildlife Service, Dr Maria GAVRILO, Russian Academy of Science et Dr Adrian AEBISHER, Museum d’Histoire Naturelle de Fribourg)
Additional scientific programs:
1. Lemming dynamics and predator prey interaction
During the course of the expedition, we will collect data (demography and diet analysis) on Snowy Owl, Arctic Fox, Long-tailed Skua, Stoat and their main prey Collared lemming. Developed on Trail Island since 1988 by the Karupelv Valley Project (Uni. Freiburg) and since 1998 by Ecopolaris (GREA & Uni. Helsinki), the long-term study of predator prey interaction is the main scientific program of the GREA in NE Greenland.
(with Dr Benoît SITTLER, University Freiburg/Brisgau & Prof. Ilkka HANSKI, University Helsinki)
2. Census of Flora and Fauna in the Fjord region (70-75° Lat. N) since 1979
All relevant Bird and Mammals (and more recently vascular plants) observations have been recorded by the GREA expeditions since 1979, providing an extensive database to access possible status changes. Of special importance is the monitoring of seabirds, to complete and update the existing Greenland Seabird Database. (with Dr David BOERTMAN, DMU, Greenland)
3. Lichen and Moss sampling
Specific lichen & moss samplings scheme will be launched in 2007 for the Botanical Museum Copenhagen and Museum Tromsø respectively. Of special interest will be the collections from the Watkins Bjerge (highest Arctic summits) and Bliss Bugt area (northernmost lands on Earth). These data will be used, among other aims, to assess the sensitivity of Arctic plants to global change (with Prof. E.S. HANSEN, Botanical Museum, Copenhagen and K. Westergaard, Museum Tromsø, NO)
4. Status and origin of the Greenland Whales relict population
Following the recent increase of records for this species in NE Greenland, we published a summary of all observations reported for the last century (Gilg & Born, 2005).
The NorthEast Water (“NEW”) Polynya is a place where we have seen the species daily in 2003. This year, we will try to collect small skin samples (biopsies) in order to discover to which population these NE Greenland Bowhead whales belong. Until recently, the species was considered extinct in the NE Atlantic Ocean (NE Greenland – Svalbard Stock) by many specialists. (with Prof. Oystein WIIG, Norsk Polarinstitutt, Norway).
5. Walrus studies
The Greenland-Svalbard population of the Atlantic walrus has become so small (less than 1000 individuals?) that it is inherently endangered. Following our previous work in 2003 and 2004 (e.g. we found 2 new haul out sites in Dove Bugt) we will continue (if any opportunity) to update the existing “ID photos” database (several controls have already been made in 2003 and 2004). (with Dr Eric BORN, Greenland Natural Research Institute, Nuuk et Copenhagen).
6. Mapping of Archaeological sites
The poorly known area of Bliss Bugt could well be the northernmost place where historical Eskimos have lived in the Past but no obvious evidence of permanent living could be found there in 2006 despite a specific search by Dr C. Andreasen (due to unusual summer snow cover). Independence and Thule sites will hence also be searched and possibly mapped beside our biological investigations (with Dr Claus Andreasen, Greenland National Museum and Archives, Nuuk)
7. Botanic sampling
Continuation of our sampling of c. 20 species for DNA analysis devoted to study the historical dispersion of Arctic species, and infer their adaptability to future and rapid range shifts. (Program title: « Effects of climate change on ecosystems in the Arctic: past and future immigration of thermophilous key species »). (with Dr Inger ALSO, University of Tromsø, Norway)
Down feathers of several seabirds, and especially of Ivory Gulls, will be collected in as many different places as possible to complete our sampling from 2003-2005. The feathers will be analyses to access the contamination of the marine trophic levels in NE Greenland, and especially to understand the possible latitudinal gradient of this contamination. (with Dr Renaud SCHEIFFLER, University of Franche-Comté, France)