In this 7 January 2016 photo, dead common murres lie washed up on a rocky beach in Whittier, Alaska. Federal scientists in Alaska are looking for the cause of a massive die-off of one of the Arctic’s most abundant seabirds. Photo: Mark Thiessen / AP

By Sarah Kaplan
13 January 2016

(Washington Post) – On the chilly shores of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, tens of thousands of battered bird carcasses are washing up. The birds, all members of a species known as the common murre, appear to have starved to death, wildlife officials said Tuesday. Their black and white bodies lie strewn across the slick rock, or else bob in the shallow waters nearby.

Seven thousand miles away, on a sandy beach in southern India, more than 100 whales were discovered mysteriously stranded on shore this week. Already at least 45 of them are dead, according to the BBC, dried out and overheated by exposure to the sun. More may soon die if they can’t be safely returned to the ocean. The area hasn’t seen this big a stranding in more than 40 years.

These are two isolated incidents, but they’re not unlike others that have been reported in the past year — unexplained die-offs, abnormally large strandings, a worldwide coral bleaching bigger than almost anything else on record. Around the world, animal populations are vulnerable. Huge groups might be killed in a matter of days or weeks. In Kazakhstan in May of last year, more half of the world’s entire population of saiga antelope vanished in less than a month.

Incidents like these are often mysteries to be unraveled, with scientists sorting through various explanations — hunger, habitat loss, disease, disorientation — for the mass deaths. But in a swath of recent cases, many of the die-offs boil down to a common problem: the animals’ environments are changing, and they’re struggling to keep up.

Take the murres dying in Alaska. The seabirds are washing ashore with empty stomachs, Robb Kaler, a seabird biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, told The Washington Post Tuesday. It’s likely that they’re having trouble finding their normal food source — herring and other small fish — because of the region’s recent unusual weather and the abnormally high temperature of water in the sound.

Though large murre die-offs have happened before, this one is on a scale most experts have never seen before, former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist David Irons told KTVA-TV.

“Seabird biologists say seabirds are indicators of the health of the ecosystem,” he said. “Now they’re dying, and that is telling us something.” [more]

In pitiful animal die-offs across the globe — from antelopes to bees to seabirds — climate change may be culprit



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