Mass puffin die-off linked to climate change, researchers say
A mass die-off of tufted puffins in the Bering Sea is being linked to climate change and dwindling food supply, and researchers say their findings could be bad news for seabirds.
Researchers found more than 350 “severely emaciated” tufted puffin carcasses during a four-month span between 2016 and 2017. But they estimate that up to 8,800 birds died, according to a report published Wednesday in the journal Plos One.
Tufted puffins, also known as crested puffins, are one of three puffin species. They live in the North Pacific between Alaska and Russia and are known for their yellow tufts and bright red bills.
Researchers found the carcasses on St. Paul Island, a small island off Alaska. They believe that the majority of those puffins starved to death – a phenomenon they say may be caused by warming seas.
Before the die-off, researchers noticed a change in zooplankton and fish populations, both of which are major sources of food for the birds. The change happened following a time of elevated sea temperatures, and researchers note that warm waters typically lead to reduced availability of plankton and fish, especially in northern climates.
“Although climate change is predicted to alter marine ecosystems globally, the effects of global warming are predicted to be the most extreme at higher latitudes,” researchers wrote.
The report did not analyze Canada’s puffin population, but researchers say the die-off they uncovered is similar to others in the Northwest Pacific since 2014.
They warn that their findings suggest “broad-scale ecosystem change.”
“Whether seabirds are resilient to these changes will ultimately govern their long-term viability in an increasingly variable climate,” researchers wrote.
Die-offs of seabirds often indicate larger ecosystem shifts due to climate, and researchers say that could be bad news for other species. An estimated 2 million seabirds – one of the world’s largest breeding populations -- live in the Pacific Northwest.
“These ‘massive mortality events’ (MME)—defined as catastrophic, but often short-lived, periods of elevated mortality—can affect substantial proportions of a population, occasionally with long-term consequences to population size.”