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Arctic Cetaceans – Indicators of Climate Change

Posted on September 9, 2016 by in The OFI Blog

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Dr. Alyson Fleming is a James Smithson Fellow at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and has had a passion for marine mammals since she was 6 years old.  In her current role as a James Smithson Fellow, Fleming seeks to use her research to broaden the knowledge of the scientific community and to inform policymakers on issues of climate change.

Most of Dr. Fleming’s research is conducted at the Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, MD, a facility that covers 4 ½ acres of land and contains over half a million square feet of space. There, Dr. Fleming analyzes bones and teeth of arctic cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in order to gain a better understanding of the changes in their ecosystems over the span of several decades. Analyzing the bones and teeth can tell us a great deal about the habitats and diets of these top-predators, and Dr. Fleming proposes that many alterations to the ecosystem are due to climate change in the Arctic region. According to Fleming, even slight decreases in the amount of ice in the Arctic could have drastic ramifications for marine ecosystems.

As a spokesperson for science, Dr. Fleming believes it is pivotal to be able to clearly communicate her findings not only to policymakers, but to the public as well. By analyzing bones that date back to the 1850s, in some cases, Fleming is using the past to reveal the future of the Arctic landscape.