Puffins’ bright beaks and black and white coats make them look like a tropical penguin, but they favor cold coastal waters and cliffs. However, climate change is threatening their chill life by the seashore. A new study published Wednesday in the PLOS ONE journal links a mass die-off of tufted puffins to climate change.
Between October 2016 and January 2017, more than 350 dead birds washed ashore on St. Paul Island, Alaska, located in the Bering Sea. Their ranks included puffins, as well as the crested auklet, a stunning black seabird with a signature black mohawk. The team of scientists estimates that up to 8,800 birds actually likely died due to starvation.
The researchers point to warm sea surface temperatures that made zooplankton scarce in the Bering Sea, causing a cascade effect down the food chain. When the plankton disappear, so does the fish and marine invertebrates that the seabirds feed on. And it’s no secret that climate change is warming Arctic waters, which led the team of researchers to partially attribute the mass seabird dieoff to climate change, too.
The study authors relied on citizen science done by tribal and community members on St. Paul Island who helped collect the bird carcasses starting in October 2016. When they were brought in for a necropsy, the scientists realized the birds were emaciated and had begun to lose fat tissue.
Before this mass die-off, beached puffins were a rare sighting in this area, the study said. But as the sea keeps warming, this may become more common as their food source disappears. Tufted puffin population numbers are already declining because they became fisheries by-catch, and the Atlantic puffin is vulnerable because of climate change as well.