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.”
– ‘Ran out of gas’ –
The researchers also realized that most of the dead birds had begun molting, the process by which they lose their feathers and gain new plumage. During this time their ability to dive and hunt for food is diminished.
By the time they began molting, the birds should already have migrated to resource-rich waters to the west and south. The energy-intense nature of the transformation appears to have contributed to their starving.
“So all of those things indicated that they did not have enough to eat, they were late in migrating, they literally ran out of gas,” said Parrish.
The paper noted “multi-year stanzas of warm conditions,” such as those seen from 2001 to 2005 and 2014 to the present, may be particularly detrimental to seabirds, whose future viability will depend on their resilience to these changes.
“I’m tremendously worried,” said Parrish. “If I had only seen this puffin die-off I might be a bit more circumspect, but this is one of about six die-offs since about 2014, 15” that collectively account for the deaths of millions of birds.
“Not just the Bering Sea, the whole north Pacific is changing,” she added. “I think the ecosystem is screaming at us and we ignore it at our peril.”
CNN host goes off on Trump as COVID-19 surges: ‘The president is peddling debunked illogical crap’
During a segment on CNN this Monday, anchor Brianna Keilar had some harsh words for President Trump and his response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, starting out by saying that the U.S. is "losing its battle" against the virus.
"...the people who are supposed to be in charge of the national response to the pandemic instead are escalating their attacks on doctors," she said, pointing out that up to 60,000 Americans are testing positive for the virus, each day.
"They're doing this even though they won't mandate the use of masks which are proven to save lives," she said. "They're doing this because the President is continuing to make claims that the only reason the U.S. has a surge in cases is because of an increase in testing."
WATCH: White House uses Fauci’s words to praise Trump – hours after trashing him
Literally hours after providing reporters with a list of what an anonymous White House official called mistakes Dr. Anthony Fauci has made over the year on coronavirus, the White House turned the tables to use the veteran immunologist's words to praise President Donald Trump.
On Sunday in a statement to CNN the White House outlined "the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things."
Calling it a "new campaign of deception," CNN reported Monday morning that "the White House is trying to destroy the reputation of one of America's most respected public servants, Dr. Anthony Fauci, for telling the truth about how bad things are getting."
FAILURE: Here are 470 ways Trump failed to protect America from COVID-19
Crises have a way of sorting the good presidents from the bad.
Historians consistently rank Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt among the top three presidents for their handling of the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II.
By contrast, the string of catastrophes that trailed George W. Bush, from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to his obliviousness to warning signs in the housing market before the 2008 crash guarantee that he will have a permanent place in the bottom tier of presidents.