Two puffin juveniles (one horned, one tufted) were brought to the Ecosystem Conservation Office at the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island on October 8-9th. The following week, locals began observing dead or "sick and dying" puffins of various plummages and beak variations from dull to bright (presumably representing various-aged individuals). ECO staff counted 42+ dead birds and 6+ sick or dying birds on October 16th along the shoreline on the north side of the island.
Paul and Aaron (cc’d) did a COASST (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team) survey along the entire North Beach this afternoon and found the following dead birds: 8 adult horned puffins, 27 adult tufted puffins, 2 juvenile tufted puffins, 2 common murres. Of these birds they were able to collect 2 horned and 11 tufted fresh dead puffins for sampling. They will stay housed in our freezer until further instruction. We will conduct daily surveys to monitor the situation. No signs of oiling or injuries.
Event Update by ACSPI ECO Office and COASST: (10/19/2016)
On 17 October 2016, Paul Melovidov and Aaron Lestenkof, biologists from the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government Ecosystem Conservation Office (ACSPI ECO), Pribilof Islands, Alaska (see map), counted 39 fresh, completely intact beached birds along North Beach (see photo). Almost all of the birds were either tufted puffins (29) or horned puffins (8). The next day, an additional 5 carcasses, all tufted puffins, were counted on North Beach, and 21 additional puffins were counted on the 18th.
At this time of year in the Pribilof Islands, average monthly encounter rates of all species combined (carcasses per kilometer assessed once a month) are below 0.1 birds per kilometer across all monitored beaches (see graph), or approximately 20 times lower than the current beaching rate. As of 19 October 2016, no birds had been found on St. George. Previous years’ data from both St. Paul and St. George indicate that puffins have been a small minority of the species washing ashore at this time of year (see graph). In over 10 years (2006 to 2015) and 306 surveys between August and November, only 3 puffins (tufted, horned, and unidentified species) have been found. Across all COASST surveys carried out on the Pribilof Islands regardless of time of year, only 6 puffins (3 horned, 1 tufted, 2 unidentified species) have ever been found. Thus, the current beaching rate for puffins is at least 100 times the normal rate found completely intact, indicating most fall victim to a combination of predation and scavenging.
In the recent event, 68 of the 69 birds found within the last 3 days have been intact (see photo), indicating these birds did not die from predation, and that they have beached extremely recently such that surveyors could find them before scavenging foxes discovered them. All of these data (higher than normal encounter rates, vastly higher than normal frequency of puffins, higher than normal percent of intact carcasses) are indicative of an unusual mortality event, or an event where a sudden increase in the number of carcasses of a small number of species overwhelms the scavenging population. The cause of this mortality is unknown at present. Carcasses have been collected for transport to the National Wildlife Health Center for post-mortem analysis. Population size of puffins breeding in the Pribilof Islands is in the thousands based on USFWS surveys: 6,000 for tufted puffins and over 30,000 for horned puffins (Beringian Seabird Colony Catalog 2005).
Julia Parrish, Executive Director of COASST, writes: (10/18/2016)
That is an unusually high number. Monitoring the abundance on a set length of beach over successive days is key, if there are personnel and the weather cooperates. First, are you all using COASST protocol for beach surveys? If not, we'll send you and whoever else the links to materials today. There should be a guide and datasheets in the ECO on St Paul. Second - take photos of each bird. Those will allow us to continue confirming your IDs. Third, freezing is good. Choose the freshest, most intact specimens. I have alerted Robb Kaler and Kathy Kuletz at USFWS with this email and they'll probably want carcasses sent to the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) in Wisconsin.
Karin Holser with the St. George Traditional Program writes: (10/19/2016)
Well, no dead puffins here, but there are two adult horned and one tufted feeding right in the tidal zone with the harlequins and some phalaropes. I am leaving today, so hopefully Dennis, the Island Sentinel, will keep a look out.
Julia Parrish writes: (10/20/2016)
The event is on the 3rd day, and they have collected data each day. Attached is the science briefing ACSPI and COASST have assembled (version 1.0) to help get this story out! Note that the numbers are fast changing!!
Barbara Bodenstein, Wildlife Disease Specialist with the US Geological Survey, writes: (10/20/2016)
It would be good to get 3-5 freshly dead specimens of each species available and send them down to NWHC for full necropsy and ancillary testing. Is there any evidence of prey species involvement - ie,. fish or krill die-off, etc? If there are, it would not hurt to grab a few of those as well and freeze in ziploc baggies. If live birds are found that have regurgitated any food material, that should be collected in ziploc and frozen as well. As to the skeletons/carcasses, we can freeze back carcasses after necropsy and return but only if there is no evidence of infectious disease. Unless a cosmetic necropsy is done, bones are typically cut during routine necropsy. I would recommend the people in the field hold on to separate specimens labeled for their collection (but do not do anything with them until we have a diagnosis). This is assuming permits are in place and approved by Kathy's shop (USFWS), etc.
Julia Parrish writes: (10/24/2016)
The latest (minus Friday’s findings) science briefing on the ongoing puffin mortality event on St Paul Island, Pribilofs is on the COASST website, and available here and also attached. We are attempting to update this at least every other day. Please also note that the event appears to have spread to St.George, which originally reported no birds (on 18 Oct 2016). I've taken the liberty of widening the circle a bit on this event. Please forward this link, or link to it. At this point, over 100 puffins (mostly tufted) have been found. Given the conditions around the islands, there is no telling how many have actually died, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s a considerably larger figure. That there are now dead and moribund birds washing in to St George is alarming (to me). And finally, a huge shout out to the Island Sentinels and the ECO, without whom none of this information would be known.
Lisa Tran, Environmental Entern with the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, writes: (5/30/2019)
In October of 2016, Alaska began seeing its tufted puffin population decreasing. With tufted puffins washing up in St. Paul, researchers began looking for answers to why the seabirds could be washing up. By February, St. Paul had discovered 359 dead seabirds, most of them being tufted puffins (Katz, 2019). “The amount of tufted puffin remains indicates that more than half of the population living around the local islands may have died,” Mike McRae writes. Julia Parrish, who is an ecologist studying the deaths reports that the birds do not have enough to eat, resulting in low body fat and death by starvation (The Weather Channel, 2019). Increasing sea and atmospheric pressure specifically have been shown to affect the puffins’ food source: fish which feed on plankton. The warm temperatures have driven the birds farther north (The Weather Channel, 2019). In addition, due to the fact that the birds died during their annual molt, their wings were too weak for them to fly and catch fish (McRae, 2019). Molting can be a process that is stressful for the birds as they are trying to replace their feathers with new ones. “As many as 7,600 tufted puffins and 8,800 seabirds in all may have died in that part of the Bering Sea,” Jan Wesner Childs writes. Similar deaths have even shown up across the country in Maine.
Alaska is home to two species of puffin, the horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata). Puffins are an alcid, belong to the family alcidae, along with auks, auklets, murres, murrelets, and guillemots. Alcids can easily move through the water, and will dive to reach fish, squid, or large plankton.
Divine, Lauren, Karin Holser, Aaron Lestenkof, Pamela Lestenkof, Paul Melovidov, Barbara Bodenstein, Hillary Burgess, Julia Parrish and Lisa Tran.2016.Unusual Mortality of Tufted and Horned Puffins (Fratercula cirrhata and Fratercula corniculata) .LEO Network (leonetwork.org).Accessed 2 March 2024.