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How and why is the timing and occurrence of seasonal migrants in the Gulf of Maine changing due to climate?


Plants and animals undergo certain recurring life-cycle events, such as migrations between summer and winter habitats or the annual blooming of plants. Known as phenology, the timing of these events is very sensitive to changes in climate (and changes in one species’ phenology can impact entire food webs and ecosystems). Shifts in phenology have been described as a “fingerprint” of the temporal and spatial responses of wildlife to climate change impacts. Thus, phenology provides one of the strongest indicators of the adaptive capacity of organisms or the ability of organisms to cope with future environmental conditions.

In this study, researchers explored how the timing and occurrence of a number of highly migratory marine animals is changing due to a series of climatic and ecological shifts. First, using existing long-term historical data series and dynamic occupancy models, the team determined how patterns in seasonal occurrence changed for large migratory whales in the Gulf of Maine. Additionally, a synthesis was conducted of regional information on a key, ecologically-important prey fish, sand lance, whose timing and abundance is a strong predictor of the occurrence and behavior of regional fish and wildlife of conservation and management concern. Results from this component of the project identified coastal fish and wildlife species that are more potentially vulnerable to climate change, determined the primary drivers of those changes, and identified data gaps and future monitoring needs.

In a second component of the project, researchers focused specifically on changes in migration patterns of the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which is one of the most endangered species on the planet. In the North Atlantic Ocean, ship strikes and entanglements with commercial fishing gear represent fatal threats to right whales. Right whale habitat models were combined with shipping traffic data to evaluate how changes in right whale movements and behaviors affect their risk of encountering shipping vessels. This information is anticipated to guide regional coastal management and adaptation decision making.


Staudinger, M., D. Pendleton, and A. Jordaan. "Climate-induced shifts in phenology: Case studies of fish, whales, and seabirds in the Gulf of Maine." The Effects of Climate Change on the World's Oceans, Session 8 -Understanding the impact of Abrupt Ocean Warming and Continental Scale Connections on marine productivity and food security via Western Boundary Currents. Washington DC. June 2018
D. Pendleton, "Changing distributions of large whales: How climate, oceanography and biology influence movement of the largest animals on Earth Location: New England Aquarium – Brown bag lecture series" January 25, 2018.
D. Pendleton, “Changing distributions of large whales: How climate, oceanography and biology influence movement of the largest animals on Earth” New England Aquarium IMAX theater, Lowell Lecture Series. November 8, 2017
D. Pendleton, "Tracking phenological changes for North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of Maine using multi-season occupancy models" Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Halifax, Nova Scotia. October 23-27, 2017
K. Jones, Greater Atlantic Region Stranding Conference (GARSCON), Hull, MA. October 10-13, 2017
D. Pendleton, 2017 Right Whale Consortium meeting, October 2017.
D. Pendleton, The Society for Marine Mammalogy Biennial conference, October, 2017.
D. Pendleton, New York regional Species Distribution Modeling group meeting at the American Museum of Natural History. He met with Morgan Tingley of the University of Connecticut and worked through the details of the [then] current occupancy model. September 29 2017.
D. Pendleton, American Museum of Natural History, Fall of 2017.
One-day meeting at the New England Aquarium (NEAq) to discuss NOAA seal stranding data and Shoals Marine Lab harbor and grey seal data. K. Jones presented her work on seal stranding data and G. Calandrino presented her work on SML seal data. July 18 2017.
D. Pendleton presented plans and research complete date at the NE CASC Regional Science Meeting Incorporating Climate Science in the Management, May 15-17, 2017.
M. Staudinger, "The ecological role of sand lance in the Gulf of Maine through a climate change lens" at the Sand Lance in the Northeast Workshop Parker River NWR, Newburyport MA. May 8 & 9th, 2017 
M. Calandrino (UMass), Honors thesis "Environmental and ecological factors affecting gray seal (Halichoerus grypus) and harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) haul-out behavior on Duck Island, ME", UMass Undergraduate Research Conference. April 28, 2017.
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Additional Information

National Wildlife Federation, "Circle of Life" magazine article in Aug-Sept 2018 Edition.

Report: Developed assessment criteria for marine mammal stocks in NOAA’s Protected Species Climate Vulnerability Assessment

Report: A Regional Analysis of Long-Term Gray and Harbor Seal Stranding Events

Literature Review: A Review of Literature for Gray and Harbor Seals

Handout: The Role of the Sand Lance in the Northwest Atlantic Ecosystem