RESEARCH FOCUS: SNOWY OWLS

© DANIEL J COX / NATURALEXPOSURES.COM

SNOWY OWL RESEARCH PROJECT

We began the Snowy Owl Breeding Ecology and Lemming Population Study in Barrow, Alaska, in 1992.  The initial research question was to evaluate the predator-prey relationship between the Snowy Owl and Brown Lemming – the owl’s primary food source.  As with most studies, a host of other simple questions arose, similar to those described in our Long-eared Owl study.  These were followed by more original questions such as: satellite tracking of movement, growth rates, plumage development, stress response to research, nest defense behavior, and activity budgets.  In fact, we were the first researchers in the world to track Snowy Owls by satellite.

Our growth and plumage development studies are the most comprehensive in the world.  Our dietary studies provide the largest known sample sizes, highlighting the reliance of Snowy Owls on Brown Lemmings in Barrow.  Our simultaneous monitoring of Snowy Owls and Brown Lemmings is the longest running study of its kind in North America.  Our discovery of an infectious disease in lemmings that can affect human has direct human health implications.

However, the most important objective still remains to continue long-term research and monitoring, and to ascertain the owls’ population fluctuations in response to fluctuating lemming populations.  We also sought to evaluate if purported lemming cycles really exist in Barrow. 

Snowy Owl and Brown Lemming numbers in Barrow are declining for reason we don’t yet understand.  We hope to determine if these population changes are linked to a changing Arctic climate.  This study has evolved to include a message of advocacy for Arctic wildlife conservation.