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Common Murre Die-Off in Alaska Has Scientists Stumped

A couple of penguin ducks common murres

(Mirror Daily, United States) – It’s tragic when species start dying off en masse, especially if something could be done to protect them. However, that isn’t always the case, as the common murre die-off in Alaska has scientists stumped.

The shores of the Gulf of Alaska have become a gruesome sight upon which to lay your eyes, as thousands of dead birds have been showing up washed ashore after starving to death.

If that wasn’t enough, on the water you can also see scores, if not hundreds or thousands of birds that are still alive but starving to death, and the authorities can’t really do anything about it.

The casualties are so high, that around 8,000 dead birds washed out near the small Alaskan town of Whittier, a community of about 220 citizens. There is no way of knowing the exact number of dead and dying birds, but experts estimate that it’s going to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Other similar die-offs occurred in the past, with 120,000 birds starving to death in 1993, and another 185,000 dying after the oil spill in 1989. However, the accumulated deaths so far already surpass those previous records, and more dead and dying birds are showing up every day.

So far, scientists have a few ideas regarding what is behind the huge common murre die-off, but they have no idea how to actually figure out for sure what’s happening.

For starters, Alaskan weather is so unpredictable, that zone experts have a hard time telling if it has anything to do with climate change.

For examples, winds that usually blow west to east across the Pacific Ocean are now blowing south to north, and a large number of the birds are being killed off by those.

These humid and warm winds usually blow with speeds up to 100 mph, and the birds that are strong enough to fly get carried away by the extremely powerful air currents. As many as tens of thousands of the birds die after being carried hundreds of miles outside their natural habitat and left to starve.

Another reason would be the disappearance or just natural relocation of the common murre’s food of choice – many small forage fish, as much as a fiftieth of their body weight.

Despite the apparent direness of the situation, experts say that things aren’t so bad.

First of all, the amount of dead birds won’t really do much for the species as a whole, as there are almost 3 million breeding individuals in Alaskan nesting colonies.

Second of all, according to one of the scientists investigating the issues, the local Alaskan scavengers – eagles, ravens, foxes, weasels, and others – are doing extremely well food-wise.

Image source: Flickr

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