Scientists decode environmental impacts from Bering Sea bird feathers

To understand the evolving marine environment, scientists look to the seabirds.

 

University of Alaska Anchorage doctoral student Veronica Padula fishes a dead seabird from the Bering Sea near the remote Alaska island of Saint Matthew. Her advisor, ecologist Doug Causey, has been collecting birds from the Bering Sea since 2009 to support research on food web shifts, plastic contamination, and other problems facing northern oceans.
Photo by Nathaniel Wilder

This article was originally published by Hakai Magazine and is republished here with permission.

“There’s some little guys hanging out in the water over there!” says deckhand Shlomo Gherman, steering the Zodiac toward a small flock of seabirds. A July squall blurs the nearby cliffs of Saint Matthew Island, more than 400 kilometers west of mainland Alaska, in the Bering Sea. Doug Causey, an ecologist from the University of Alaska Anchorage, swivels on the gunwale, following the birds as they lift off, then raises a shotgun and fires.

A gray body biffs into the waves. Veronica Padula, who is working with Causey on part of her doctorate, retrieves it with a hand net. “Parakeet auklet,” she confirms.

“What?” Causey yells.

“Parakeet!” she shouts over the wind.

Back aboard the Tiĝlax̂—the research vessel of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, pronounced TEKH-lah — Causey looks a bit like a seabird himself in his bulky black hoodie. He leans over five new specimens — two auklets, with eerie white eyes, and three pigeon guillemots, raven-sleek with improbably red feet.

Make no mistake: Causey loves birds. Watching footage of nesting northern fulmars one night in the ship’s galley, his eyes had grown moist. Still, he handles the dead without sentiment or revulsion. A few days earlier, he had not hesitated to grab a few rotting guillemots and glaucous gulls from a fox den. “Oh! Oh … with your bare hands?!” Padula had exclaimed.

“There’s nothing so gross that I won’t pick it up,” he replied.

Now, with the fresh birds arrayed before him, he clips numbered tags through their webbed feet and measures wings, bills, legs, and tails. Padula embosses separate metal tags to be attached to the birds’ ankles before each is wrapped in foil and filed away in the freezer for later dissection in Anchorage.

In its early days, biology hinged on killing and collecting creatures to catalog the world’s species. Causey’s work has shades of that now-rarer 19th-century practice — “John J. Audubon wouldn’t have been in a Zodiac with a motor, but he would have had a shotgun and a boat,” Causey points out. But this collection is meant to catalog something more insidious: a story of Bering Sea change that is writing itself into these birds’ very bodies.

Ecologist Doug Causey heads out from the US Fish and Wildlife’s Tiĝlax̂ research vessel to collect seabirds with a shotgun. Though the practice can be controversial, it supports several inquiries into long-term environmental change in the Bering Sea.
Photo by Nathaniel Wilder

Back in 2009, on a Tiĝlax̂ trip to the Aleutian Islands at the far western end of the wildlife refuge, Causey noticed that the breeding populations of cormorants had plummeted. “Something was happening to the marine environment,” he says.

He turned to the seabirds themselves to find out what. Because they forage over great distances and different species eat different things — from plankton at the bottom of the food web to fish in the upper threads — examining what a suite of them are eating will tell you what kinds of food are available in the ocean and, by extension, how those foods might be changing along with ocean conditions. But instead of looking at birds’ stomach contents, which provide a snapshot of one meal, Causey is scrutinizing their feathers with a technique called stable isotope analysis.

Isotopes are atoms of the same element, such as carbon or nitrogen, that have slightly different masses. Foods have unique ratios of these isotopes. As a body incorporates a food, these ratios are preserved — a library of meals recorded in the flesh. “If you eat a ham sandwich, within about half an hour we can detect the stable isotopes that are associated with that ham sandwich out of your breath,” Causey says. “In about 10 to 15 days, we can detect the stable isotopes from your ham sandwich in your red blood cells. In 30 days, in your blood plasma.” With birds, researchers can do the same with different feathers based on when each part of their plumage comes in — sussing out what the animals were eating as far back as a year.

With this in mind, Causey has so far collected and salvaged 910 seabirds of 10 different species from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge with the Tiĝlax̂’s help over the past decade — primarily from the Aleutians. Though analysis is ongoing, preliminary findings are alarming. Within the past five or so years, he says, the birds’ diets have become more varied. Northern fulmars, for example, a relative of the albatross, primarily eat krill — a tiny floating crustacean — but now seem to be leaning ever more heavily on other kinds of plankton.

“When you see widespread increasing variability, it means that the ecosystem is going through a change,” he says. And if that change ultimately means the seabirds’ favored foods are harder to come by near the islands where they rear their young, it could be one factor driving population declines. Seabirds are capable of foraging over vast distances, so they can follow food — to a point. “Until birds can figure out how to lay their nests on water,” he says, “they’re stuck to an island to breed.”

Each collected bird supports not just the stable isotope project but several others as well. One graduate student examines samples for novel forms of influenza and other viruses that could harm people — an increasing concern as animals shift their ranges because of climate change. One of Causey’s colleagues collects the birds’ parasites. Some tissues are measured for the presence of toxins from harmful algal blooms, another byproduct of Bering Sea warming; others are sampled for plastics and their byproducts. Specific data for each animal is also entered into vertnet.org, an international catalog of specimens, where other researchers can use it, too.

Padula first started helping Causey as a side project a decade ago while completing a master’s degree on fish, then began her interdisciplinary doctorate in 2014, part of which assesses the collected birds’ exposure to phthalates, a class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals used to make plastics more pliant. Like the signs of ecosystem change, the chemical news isn’t encouraging. Every individual of every species tested has tissue contaminated with at least one form of phthalate.

Gathering such information makes collecting worthwhile, despite the controversy it can bring, Causey believes. His target species aren’t rare, and most of these projects require a whole animal. And while it is possible to sample feathers from live birds, he adds, in the dense colonies of the refuge, that would likely be more disruptive to breeding populations than gathering a few at sea under a carefully regulated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit.

“There are things happening there that, unless someone is sharing the story, people don’t really get to know about it.”

Generally, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge no longer collects its own specimens. But supervisory wildlife biologist Heather Renner recognizes the value of Causey’s work. Some 40 million seabirds flock to the refuge to breed, so information on their ecology and the threats they face is “tremendously helpful,” she says. “Some of these questions about what they’re eating at other times of the year, or over a longer period, we just can’t answer without some of these more integrated types of studies.”

For her part, Padula struggles with the collecting process. “It sucks a lot,” she says bluntly. But she hopes that amplifying what she, Causey, and others are reading from the birds’ bodies will inspire empathy for these species and the growing burdens they bear in the already harsh places where they make their homes. Few people get to visit places like the Aleutians and Saint Matthew and understand how special they are, she says. “There are things happening there that, unless someone is sharing the story, people don’t really get to know about it.”

Sarah Gilman is a contributing editor at Hakai Magazine, and writes and draws from north-central Washington State. Her work has appeared in The AtlanticBioGraphic, Adventure Journal Quarterly, and others. She was a staff and contributing editor at High Country News for 11 years. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...