What seabirds can tell us about our oceans

Studying auklets unlocks conservation mysteries

Auklets in nest on cliffside

As seabirds go, auklets are truly a bellwether of the health of our northern oceans. These charmingly social and charismatic birds help us monitor entire ecosystems when we research their activity by counting them, collecting samples, and spending time near them. These important long-term studies help us identify climate and ocean trends and indicate how things are changing.

Since 2016, WWF biologist Alexis Will has been monitoring the auklet species that nest near Savoonga, Alaska, a small community on the island of Sivuqaq in the middle of the northern Bering Sea. While there are six total species of auklet, least and crested auklets make up the colony there, breeding in rock crevices along windswept cliffs bordering the ocean.

The colony consists of 17,814 least auklets and 128,208 crested auklets. That may seem like quite a crowd, but at their largest, colonies number between 1 million and 3 million when they breed. Their busy breeding months have them constantly flying and foraging in search of tasty copepods, other zooplankton, and krill. They lay a single egg and raise just one chick each summer.

“I love auklets because they are fierce, energetic, animated, social, and spunky,” Will said. “To me they are mysterious and hold the promise of revealing interesting things about the ocean.”

Auklets come together to nest in vast numbers, creating quite a spectacle.

What auklets reveal about ocean health

The climate crisis is affecting auklets’ food source—the zooplankton community. To better understand what is available for the auklets to eat, Will and her team look at the sustenance they bring back to their chicks.

What does an auklet sound like?

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Adult auklets will offload (ahem, puke up) the food they are carrying in their gular pouch, a “throat” pouch accessible under their tongue, for their chicks. Then the researchers will use a tongue depressor to scrape the leftover regurgitation off the rocks. Generally, orange puke means lots of copepods and purple puke means mostly euphausiids, but samples are taken back to the lab where they are sorted and identified by a plankton expert.

The team also measures nutritional stress to understand how changes in diet, sea ice, or the increased presence of large predatory fish moving north from the southeastern Bering Sea affect auklets. Not a lot stresses out a breeding seabird. If they are in good enough condition to show up at the colony and make a breeding attempt, then the only stressor they face is food shortage, or some other nutrient limiting conditions such as prey that’s low in calorie content, difficult to reach or catch, or low in population. The avian stress hormone corticosterone can be measured in blood, feathers, and feces. The team collects blood and feather samples to track nutritional stress throughout the year. This measure complements the diet collection because it interprets what the prey composition means for the birds and how other ecological factors may be influencing their ability to obtain adequate food.

When combined with regional seabird monitoring data, other ecological data such as plankton and fish distributions, and physical data like sea ice extent, the monitoring data collected on Sivuqaq contribute to a broader understanding of how the northern Bering Sea ecosystem is responding to climate change. The data collected and observations by local community members are also compiled as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ecosystem status report, delivered annually to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council for use in their ecosystem-based management approach.

“The information provided by least auklets contributes to our understanding of the consequences of environmental change and supplies clues about how communities and ecosystem processes respond to physical forces,” Will said. “Continued warming of the magnitude seen in recent years could become a cause for concern for auklets and other planktivores in the Bering Sea if it alters prey availability in ways detrimental to their populations.”

Adapting to a more dynamic environment

For those living in or studying the Arctic, and those whose culture and well-being are inextricably linked to the health of the Arctic ecosystem, climate change has repercussions beyond impacts such as sea ice loss. Alaska Natives, who have survived assimilation and persecution by the US government, find that their culture and way of life are again under threat. Arctic peoples now must adapt quickly to change, shifting their hunting seasons and techniques and working with researchers to understand how the climate crisis is affecting wildlife populations so that they can continue to live with marine life in a sustainable way. The pace of change is unprecedented and requires that we all adapt our understanding and expectations of what these ecosystems will look like in the future. It is unrealistic—and potentially very harmful to everyone’s mental health—to hold onto the vision of what the Arctic once was. Instead, we will have to learn to appreciate what the Arctic is becoming, and work together to ensure that there are still places left for the species that require sea ice to flourish.

Auklets are perhaps the best example of how resilient Arctic ecosystems may be. Their distribution in the Bering Sea has likely changed in response to long-term changes in climate, expanding and contracting as glaciers advanced and melted, and capitalizing on emerging productivity hotspots, even in the last 50 years. As the northern Bering Sea changes, and the ecosystem restructures, auklets can help us understand how interactions between species are changing, and whether the number of species it can support changes. Auklets may be messengers of distress when their colonies empty out and their chicks starve, but they are also a reminder that not all is lost, and that it is possible to have a successful breeding season after a series of failed ones; it is still possible for us to curb the worst impacts of a warming planet.