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Why El Niño may have contributed to mass death of seabirds

Leeanna McLean
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, January 13, 2016, 9:14 AM - An "unprecedented" die-off of common murres along the shores of Alaska could be a sign of ecosystem changes, according to scientists.

About 8,000 of the the black and white birds were found dead last week on the beaches of Whittier, located about 97 km south of Anchorage. Experts have said the birds appear to have starved to death

"It was pretty horrifying," David Irons, the seabird biologist who spotted the carcasses told The Associated Press. "The live ones standing along the dead ones were even worse."

After examining about 100 carcasses, the USGS National Wildlife Health Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, found no evidence of parasites or disease, but rather the birds were emaciated.

The die-off is a sign of what is happening in the marine system, according to the USFWS Alaska Migratory Bird Management.

"Seabird mortality events occur occasionally, especially after a hard winter, and causes are often difficult to determine. This current die-off, however, appears to be unusually large," the USFWS said in a release.

Warmer than normal sea temperatures, perhaps due to global warming or El Niño, which may have affected the distribution of prey species including, herring and capelin.

Scientists say the birds search for food in dense schools of fish as they have to consume prey matching 10 to 30 per cent of their body mass daily. Water temperatures were above average in 2015 and biologists found murres started to show up near shore where they would compete with sea lions for herring. Many females were also too weak to breed.

An unusual warm mass of water in the Pacific Ocean known as 'The Blob' has had close ties to much of the weather making news in North America and has had a detrimental impact on aquatic life.

There are approximately 2.8 million breeding common murres in 230 Alaska colonies, with a worldwide population of 13 to 20.7 million birds, The Associated Press reports.

Source: The Associated Press | USFWS 

Related: Hundreds of birds killed in rare weather event

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