Warm Ocean Water Blamed For Alaskan Seabird Die-off

Posted: Feb 12 2017, 10:32am CST | by , Updated: Feb 12 2017, 10:49am CST, in News | Latest Science News

 
Warm Ocean Water Blamed for Alaskan Seabird Die-off
Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Researchers have pinned down the cause of 2016 commom murre die-off

Last year, thousands of black and white seabirds were found dead on beaches from California to Alaska. At first researchers were surprised by the bodies washing ashore and failed to provide an explanation for this distressing situation but now they have figured out the cause of this massive die-off.

Researchers believe that the seabirds were driven to death by warm ocean water.

The birds, called common murres, are the most abundant North Pacific seabirds that nests along rocky cliffs and spends their winter at cool seawater. The death of thosuands of seabirds was not a common sight on Alaskan shore.

Researchers from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey performed animal autopsies, called necropsies, on several of the bodies of dead birds floating in and around the ocean and found no evidence of disease or trauma or virus in them. They appear simply to have starved to death.

Common murres were starved to death because of unusually warm surface temperatures in the North Pacific in recent years. The warm water of the Pacific is either killing off the murres' prey, or pushing them into cooler waters.

“They died of starvation because there was no food," Piatt said. "There was no food because there was no fish. And there was no fish because these warm waters did something to them.” John Piatt, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey said in a statement.

Common murres fly miles and miles in search of fish and can dive nearly 600 feet deep to capture them. They need a lot of food to maintain their energy. Lack of prey means they have to use up their fat reserves which can drop them to a critical threshold for starvation within three days.

“If tens of thousands of them are dying, it's because there's no fish out there, anywhere, over a very large area.” Piatt said.

There are about 2.8 million common murres in 230 Alaska colonies. Their Alaskan population has experienced many die-offs before but the one in 2016 was the biggest in the past few years, killing around 8,000 seabirds in only first few days of January. Most of the dead bird bodies were found floating in the surf while only about 15 percent of carcasses could reach shoreline.

The findings reveal gaps in basic information on North Pacific waters and the wildlife that inhabit them. Researchers believe that the common murre die-off could be a sign of changes in the ecosystem that might be impacted by global warming or El-Nino weather patterns. Researchers suspect that the dying may spread to other wildlife in the future.

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.

 

 

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