Jun 17, 2019 | Updated: 11:38 AM EDT

Hundreds of Death Puffins Washed Up On Alaskan Shores

Jun 13, 2019 10:37 AM EDT

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Puffins Dead
(Photo : Timothy Jones Lauren M. Divine ... Julia K. Parrish) Photo of carcasses found on North Beach, St. Paul Island, Alaska, on 17 October 2016

On October 19, 2016, inhabitants of St. Paul Island in Alaska found these 19 tufted puffins on the island’s North Beach. The birds were emaciated and may have died of starvation as a result of climate change.

(Photo : ALEUT COMMUNITY OF ST PAUL ISLAND ECOSYSTEM CONSERVATION OFFICE) On October 19, 2016, inhabitants of St. Paul Island in Alaska found these 19 tufted puffins on the island’s North Beach. The birds were emaciated and may have died of starvation as a result of climate change.

ALASKA, USA - The Arctic circle has been receiving a heavy hand when comes to global warming. There have been reports that animals are dying because the temperature in the region was becoming too hot for them to live. In October 2016 through January 2017, residents of St Paul Island, notice a great number of puffins were stranded at the shore of Alaska. Most of them were already dead while others seemed to be sick, emaciated and unable to fly.

The team went out there to push their research further. In the months following that, they found more than 350 bodies of dead puffins washed away on the shore. The rate of the deaths was 70 times higher than expected. Most of the birds found are those that were found belong to the species of tufted puffins -- a species that was not often seen to be washed up dead. It now seems as if the puffins have become the latest victims of mass mortality. The deaths are becoming more frequent at a large scale.

Timothy Jones from the University of Washington used the data on the wind patterns to identify where the dead birds have come from. In his study, he estimated 8800 tufted puffins have died in the last few months of 2016 alone. 

Since most of the bodies were left intact without any signs of predator attacks or disease, the likely cause of death was starvation. The birds were extremely thin with very little body fat. "They literally didn't have enough to eat and became weak to the point of death," says Julia K. Parrish, researcher from the University of Washington and the lead author of the study.

Due to climate change, the sea ice sheets has become unprecendentedly thin and sparse in the Bering Sea. This has cause a chain reaction and has affected everything from tiny plankton to giant walruses. Large numbers of Pollock, cod and other fish usually likes to congregate at the edges of Cold Pool which provides excellent hunting grounds for puffins and other sea birds. The Cold Pool are layer of super-cold water created by ice sheets.  When Cold Pool doesn't form, the fishes will spread out over larger distances and becomes harder for the seabirds to catch. 

"In short, climate change causes seabird starvation," says Melanie Smith, the conservation director for Audubon Alaska. "It's not the only factor at play, but it is the common thread among similar events." 

The climate in Bering Sea is indeed changing and it is changing rapidly. These changes may have caught these birds at a wrong time.

"It is the ecosystem that is constantly reminding us that they need our attention now more than ever," Parrish added. "This is a sad bird story, but it's also one about how community science and mainstream science can work together. Listening to local expertise and incorporating that into what we do ... that's the only way science is going to save the world." 

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