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Mortality of Tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) and other alcids during an unusual mortality event in the eastern Bering Sea

May 29, 2019

Mass mortality events are increasing in frequency and magnitude, potentially linked with ongoing climate change. In October 2016 through January 2017, St. Paul Island situated at the shelf-edge of the Bering Sea, Alaska, experienced a mortality event of alcids (family: Alcidae), with over 350 carcasses recovered. Almost three-quarters of the carcasses were unscavenged, a rate much higher than in baseline surveys (17%), suggesting that a sudden, large deposition event overwhelmed local scavenger populations. Based on the observation that carcasses were not observed on the neighboring island of St. George, we bounded the at-sea distribution of moribund birds, and estimated all species mortality at 8,000 to 22,000 birds. The event was particularly anomalous given the late fall/winter timing of the event when low numbers of beached birds are typical; and the predominance of Tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata, 79% of carcass finds) and Crested auklets (Aethia cristatella, 11% of carcass finds), species that were nearly absent from long-term baseline surveys. Collected specimens were disease-free and severely emaciated, suggesting starvation as the ultimate cause of mortality. The majority (95%, N = 245) of Tufted puffins were regrowing flight feathers, indicating a potential contribution of molt stress. Immediately prior to this event, shifts in zooplankton community composition and forage fish distribution and energy density were documented in the eastern Bering Sea following a period of elevated sea surface temperatures, evidence cumulatively suggestive of a bottom-up shift in seabird prey availability. We posit that shifts in prey composition and distribution pushing birds outside of their normal fall migration pattern, combined with the onset of molt, resulted in this mortality event