It seems to be a bad year when it comes to animals dying en-mass, from the ancient horseshoe crabs in Japan to the 300 unfortunate deer who died from a lightning storm. The latest victim of 2016’s apocalyptically bad run of luck is the beloved puffin in Alaska, and scientists are pointing the finger at climate change.
Since October, hundreds of puffins have died or been severely emaciated on the Pribilof Islands, a group of volcanic islands off the coast of mainland Alaska in the Bering Sea.
"In 10 years of monitoring, we've only seen six puffins wash in – total. Now we've seen nearly 250 in 20 days," University of Washington Professor Julia Parrish, who leads a West Coast volunteer bird-monitoring network, told National Geographic.
Daily surveys have found 247 dead birds on four separate beaches on the north and east sides of the island, according to community-based monitoring program Bering Watch. The trend is particularly worrying as the rate of carcasses is around 200 times the normal rate.
Puffins photographed on St Pauls Island in mid-late October. Paul Melovidov / Aleut Community of St. Paul Ecosystem Conservation Office
The majority of the birds' bodies were fully intact, suggesting they were not attacked. The researchers have also tested the birds for contaminants and disease, although they believe a much wider issue is afoot.
It’s believed the cause was “overwhelmingly severe starvation”. The scientists believe it’s likely to be tied to a string of warm weather that has hit the waters of the Bering Sea. The NOAA explain that the Bering Sea came out of a 7-year-long cold spell in 2014, bringing considerably warm temperatures to the ecosystem. This year's late summer was particularly balmy for the typically chilly subarctic sea. September's average temperature on Saint Paul island was 4.6 degrees higher than normal and August's was 4.1 degrees higher. In turn, that's created a domino effect that has seen less fish for these seabirds to eat.