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Bird die-offs provide window into a changing Arctic
Theo Stein
/ Categories: Research Headlines, Arctic

Bird die-offs provide window into a changing Arctic

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of Dispatches from the Arctic from the August science cruise by NOAA and partner scientists aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. Today's post is from Lindsey Leigh Graham, a wildlife photographer documenting the cruise.

By Lindsey Leigh Graham

As a least auklet lands on the bow of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, an audible gasp rolls through observers on the Healy’s bridge. The auklet is undeniably cute, in part because it’s incredibly small. No bigger than your clenched fist, the auklet is dwarfed by the bow of the 420-foot vessel, which might look like a logical resting place for an exhausted seabird. Charlie Wright, a scientist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knows better. 

“Something’s not right,” he says. This auklet, the smallest member of a diminutive tribe that spends their lives at sea, should not have any trouble making use of its ocean habitat. In short, it shouldn’t be landing on the bow of a ship.

Seabirds, such as murres, shearwaters, kittiwakes, puffins and auklets, are good indicators of ocean ecosystem health.  Starting in 2017, large numbers of dead seabirds have been reported in the waters and along the coast of the Bering Strait region. Charlie said that prior to 2017, a similar cruise would have only encountered two to five dead birds. So far, 19 have been spotted during the Healy’s first leg through this region, an unusually high number. Carcasses are being found in areas rich in resources and the increase in deaths has biologists notably concerned. As birds are high on the marine food web, understanding these die-offs should provide insight into the health of lower-level communities.

Charlie and Linnaea Wright, wildlife research technicians with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, survey the Bering Sea for seabirds from the bridge of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Credit: Lindsey Leigh Graham.

Unfortunately, Charlie’s suspicion was correct. The emaciated auklet died later that day. While its death pulled at our heart strings, it was a stroke of luck that it happened while the auklet was onboard. At a speed of 15 knots, it takes the Healy approximately 1/4 of a mile to come to a complete emergency stop, making it nearly impossible to collect any dead birds while in transit. 

The now-frozen auklet will be sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, where a detailed necropsy will be performed in an attempt to determine the cause of death.  

It has been suggested that these die-offs could potentially correspond to harmful algal blooms in the Arctic region. The increase in temperature and decrease in sea ice is likely to allow the harmful algae a longer period of growth over a larger physical area and in higher concentrations.Unusual mortality events have been attributed to harmful algal blooms in marine mammals, and though suspected, have rarely been documented in birds. The lack of sea ice, however, does have cascading effects throughout the food web, resulting in shifts in the abundance and types of forage for seabirds like the least auklet. 

The loss of one auklet in a place as vast and remote as the Bering Strait may seem insignificant, and the chances of this one bird’s death being observed are infinitesimally small. The Healy is an invaluable observation platform, collecting many different types of data, like this auklet, which will provide some insights into the multi-year seabird die-offs seen in the region, and health of the system as a whole. 

Each August, US Coast Guard Cutter Healy conducts a research cruise for the Distributed Biological Observatory, which is supported by NOAA’s Arctic Research Program. During the month-long cruise, U.S. scientists take a wide range of physical, chemical, and biological observations and measurements from eight designated hot spots in the Pacific Arctic region. For more on the Distributed Biological Observatory, please see a special edition of the journal Deep Sea Research.




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