Alaskan Puffins Are Dying By The Hundreds Because Of Climate Change

Hundreds of puffins are washing up, dead, their bodies emaciated from starvation, on the shores of an Alaskan island. Climate change is to blame, New Scientist reports.

While the Antarctic is famous for its penguins, the flightless aquatic bird featured in so many movies and cartoons, the Arctic has the puffin. Other than both being cold-climate birds, the animals have little else in common. Puffins can fly, for example, unlike penguins, and are generally smaller than penguins. Large penguins can be half as tall as an adult man.

Unfortunately, like a lot of polar wildlife, the puffin is threatened by climate change. This reality is becoming painfully obvious on the shores of Alaska's Saint Paul island, where the bodies of starved puffins are washing up by the hundreds.

Between October of 2016 and January of 2017, St. Paul residents found the bodies of about 350 of the birds -- specifically the local species, the tufted puffin.

Timothy Jones and his colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle say that those numbers don't tell the whole story. Looking at location and wind data, among other factors, Jones' team estimates that the real number of puffins who died in that time period is in the range of 3,000 to 9,000.

Another researcher, Laura Divine, traveled alongside her team -- heading to the unforgiving winter climate of the islands -- to figure out what was going on. She said that so profound was the loss of life among the puffins that "you couldn't walk more than a few steps" without coming across a dead bird. "It was pretty apparent that something was really wrong in the environment," she said.

The problem, according to The Atlantic, is climate change. The warming waters of the Arctic Ocean and the various bays, seas, and other waterways within has led to a decrease in the amount of sea ice. This, in turn, has led to a decrease in the amount of phytoplankton. Various sea creatures feed on that plankton, and the puffins themselves feed on those creatures. This disruption of the food chain has resulted in mass starvation of the tufted puffin, at least around Saint Paul Island.

Climate scientists say that such mass die-offs are becoming more and more frequent -- particularly for species residing around the polar regions -- due to climate change.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has a conservation status for almost every living species on Earth, notes that the number of tufted puffins is decreasing. However, as of now, the IUCN does not list the tufted puffin as endangered -- or even threatened. On its website, the IUCN lists the status of the species as being of "Least Concern."