Washington, United States (AFP) – 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 known for their brightly-colored beaks and thick tufts had instead starved to death.
In a new study published Wednesday researchers concluded the deaths, which occurred between October 2016 and February 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, some 300 miles (480 kilometers) east of the mainland.
According to scientists, Alaska as a whole has been warming twice as fast as the global average, with temperatures earlier this year shattering records.
“The puffins are one among several signals recorded that connect the physics of the system — how cold or warm it is — to the biology of the system,” she told AFP.
“They just happen to be a very visible, graphic signal because it’s really hard to avoid hundreds or thousands of birds dying and washing up at your feet.”