Tens of thousands of Alaska seabirds have starved to death, as a direct consequence of unprecedented global warming coupled with a stronger than usual El Niño.
The most severely affected species is the common murre, whose population is rather plentiful, having been estimated at around 2.8 million individuals, distributed across approximately 230 Alaskan colonies.
According to an analysis conducted by the US. Fish and Wildlife Service during the last weekend, as many as 8,000 common murres have washed up dead on a beach close to Whittier, a small town located around 60 miles southeast of Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage.
In addition, several thousands other bird carcasses have piled up in the vicinity of Homer, a fashionable tourist spot approximately 125 miles southwards.
An accurate estimation of the total number of common murres that have died in recent months is impossible to make, argues John Piatt, a researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center.
As he explains, many of these fatally malnourished birds are strewn across remote beaches, stretching across several hundred of miles along the Gulf of Alaska, so while this definitely appears like an incident of mass mortality, its exact extent may never be fully established.
Researchers believe that the reason for this exceptionally high number of deaths among common murres may be linked to shortages in their food supply, due to a highly potent El Niño combined with extreme changes in weather patterns.
The thin-billed auks rely mostly on herring as a source of sustenance, and it appears that last year and this year also such schools of fish have been quite sparse in the Prince William Sound, as a result of excessively warm waters.
Despite being around 18 feet tall, these Alaskan seabirds require very little food on a daily basis, corresponding to just around a fifthieth of their body weight, which usually ranges between 2 and 2.3 pounds.
The fact that so many of them are failing to have even this small amount of nourishment is indicative of how depleted the local herring population is nowadays.
According to researchers, the forage fish, which normally favor cooler water, have either suffered a decline due to global warming, or have left the area, in search for more a more suitable habitat.
As a result, the black and white birds have been left to starve, their dwindling numbers suggesting that the local ecosystem stretching across the North Pacific Ocean is under significant strain these days.
Some of the murres have perished in the water, their carcasses washing up on the Alaskan shoreline; others have tried to migrate inland, sightings being reported around rivers and lakes, and even beyond the Alaskan mountain range.
Left at the mercy of rugged storms and strong whirlwinds (reaching 100 miles per hour) as they became progressively weakened and famished, many have collapsed there instead, hundreds of miles away from the unforgivingly warm waters.
The only ones to benefit have been scavenger populations, such as bald eagles, foxes, coyotes, ravens, and magpies. As more and more common murres have been dying, the bottom-feeders have enjoyed an uncommonly rich food supply, greatly benefiting from the seabirds’ misfortune.
Image Source: Flickr