Climate change blamed for deaths
When an unusually large number of puffin carcasses began to wash ashore on Alaska’s remote St Paul Island in the fall of 2016, the local tribal population grew alarmed.
At first they suspected the seabirds might have avian flu – but labs on the mainland soon ruled out any disease, finding that the seabirds had instead starved to death.
In a new study published on Wednesday researchers concluded the deaths, which occurred between 2016 and 2017, ran into the thousands – and were part of a growing number of mass die-offs recorded as climate change wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems.
The paper, which appeared in the journal PLOS ONE, found that although locals recovered only 350 carcasses, between 3,150 and 8,500 birds may have succumbed to starvation.
The majority were tufted puffins and the remainder were crested auklets.
The research team, which included scientists from the University of Washington and the Aleut Community of St Paul Island Ecosystem Conservation Office, said that from 2014 increased atmospheric temperatures and decreased winter sea ice led to declines in energy-rich prey species in the Bering Sea.
Tufted puffins breeding in the Bering Sea feed on small fish and marine invertebrates, which in turn eat ocean plankton.
“There was no fat there, the musculature was literally disintegrating,” co-author Julia Parrish said of the birds, which washed up on the island.
Growing number of mass die-offs recorded as climate change wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems