The pink-footed goose has become a bold explorer in what appears to be a remarkable example of an arctic species not only adapting, but thriving, in the face of climate change.
In the 1990s, small numbers of the silvery brown bird with flashy pink legs began popping up in Sweden and Finland, far from their traditional migration route and breeding grounds in Norway. The sightings became more frequent in the 2000s before exploding in the 2010s.
“All of a sudden, these few hundred birds developed into thousands,” said Jesper Madsen, a biology professor at Aarhus University in Denmark and lead author of a new paper in the journal Current Biology.
In 2018 and 2019, researchers attached solar-powered GPS transmitters to 21 of the intrepid geese and began tracking their migration through Scandinavia. They were amazed to discover that some of the birds were headed for an entirely new breeding ground on Russia’s Novaya Zemlya archipelago, almost 1,000km from their traditional grounds in Svalbard, Norway.
Global warming has made conditions at the new site similar to those at Svalbard about 40 years ago, Madsen said, which suggests the geese have been responding to climate change and its consequences, including changes to plant life in Norway and increased competition with other species of geese.
Researchers speculate that some of the early explorers might have followed taiga bean geese, another northern species, along their migration path to new wintering spots.
However, the sheer number of pink-footed geese now established in Russia — the population has grown from 100 to 4,000 — and the distance they must travel to get there suggests they are also absorbing information from their explorer relatives in a process called social learning.
“We see that the birds reproduce well, and survive well, but that cannot explain the rapid growth,” Madsen said.
It is more likely that information is being shared between the birds, causing more and more to join the new colony, he said.
The discovery could offer some hope for other arctic species that are under increasing stress. Wildlife are seen as particularly vulnerable to climate change in the region, where accelerating warming is causing temperatures to rise at about four times the global rate.
“The geese have a behavioral trait that gives them an advantage,” Madsen said, which raises the question of whether other animals can adapt to climate change through social learning.
“It could also be beneficial to other species in the arctic like reindeer, wolves and whales, where you have social interactions and social communication,” he said.
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