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magazine / mj07

May/June 2007 issue


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IMAGE: USGS NATIONAL CENTER FOR EROS, NASA LANDSAT PROJECT SCIENCE OFFICE

Island refuge
Remote, rugged and uninhabited, Akpatok Island draws throngs of northern wildlife
By Andréa Ventimiglia

MAP: STEVEN FICK/CANADIAN GEOGRAPHIC
Shadows accentuate the sheerness of the limestone walls that rise from the frigid waters along the north and west coasts of Nunavut's Akpatok Island. Encased in snow and encircled with sea ice in this false-colour satellite image, the treeless island located at the mouth of Ungava Bay is known for its hordes of breeding birds.

"Akpatok" is derived from akpa, Inuktitut for the thick-billed murre, a type of auk that flocks by the thousands to the bare cliffs in the northern and southern reaches of the island between June and September. Towering more than 250 metres in places, the cliff ledges provide the favoured setting for the female murre to incubate her single pear-shaped egg.

The unforgiving landscape has fostered the largest thick-billed murre colony in Canada — at times numbering about two million — and one of the largest in the world. And the birds serve a vital ecological role. Polar bears feed on murre fledglings, while protein-rich bird droppings provide nutrients for the low-lying island vegetation. Inuit also travel to the shores to hunt.

Recent research suggests climate change is already altering the murres' diet on other Arctic islands, a phenomenon that is likely also occurring on Akpatok. While polar cod was once a staple of the nesting birds' diet, murres now seem to be eating other fish or invertebrates. Scientists believe such diet shifts could have ecological repercussions on this island sanctuary.



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