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Research Technical Report

Massive Mortality of a Planktivorous Seabird in Response to a Marine Heatwave

Jones, T., J.K. Parrish, W.T. Peterson, E.P. Bjorkstedt, N.A. Bond, L.T. Balance, V. Bowes, J.M. Hipfner, H.K. Burgess, J.E. Dolliver, K. Lindquist, J. Lindsey, H.M. Nevins, R.R. Robertson, J. Roletto, L. Wilson, T. Joyce, and J. Harvey (2018)

Geophysical Research Letters doi: 10.1002/2017GL076164


Climate change has exacerbated the occurrence of large-scale sea-surface temperature anomalies, or marine heatwaves (MHW) - extreme phenomena often associated with mass mortality events of marine organisms. Using a combination of citizen science and federal datasets, we investigated the causal mechanisms of the 2014/15 die-off of Cassin's Auklets (Ptychoramphus aleuticus), a small zooplanktivorous seabird, during the NE Pacific MHW of 2013-2015. Carcass deposition followed an effective reduction in the energy content of mesozooplankton, coincident with the loss of cold-water foraging habitat caused by the intrusion of the NE Pacific MHW into the nearshore environment. Models examining interannual variability in effort-controlled carcass abundance (2001-2014) identified the biomass of lipid-poor zooplankton as the dominant predictor of increased carcass abundance. In 2014, Cassin's Auklets dispersing from colonies in British Columbia likely congregated into a nearshore band of cooler upwelled water, and ultimately died from starvation following the shift in zooplankton composition associated with onshore transport of the NE Pacific MHW. For Cassin's Auklets, already in decline due to ocean warming, large-scale and persistent MHWs might represent a global population precipice.