Science for a Blue Planet

Science for a Blue Planet

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Strange Days

By | April 6, 2015

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Warmer Conditions Disrupt Farallones Wildlife

From dead Cassin’s Auklets to shores littered with bright blue sailor jellyfish, this winter brought unusual conditions for West Coast ocean life. The Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, 30 miles outside of San Francisco, wasn’t exempt.

Biologists with Point Blue Conservation Science and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented seals and sea lions having difficulty reproducing, local seabirds with low colony attendance and two tropical seabird species appearing on the islands, far from their normal range.

“The reasons for these rare observations have to do with the unusually warm air and ocean temperatures and how they impact the ecosystem,” says Russ Bradley, Farallon Researcher for Point Blue Conservation Science. “In February, average air temperature and average sea surface temperature were the highest recorded in 45 years.”

Warmer air and ocean temperatures resulted in a lack of ocean upwelling, which brings up nutrient-rich waters from the ocean bottom. This throws the ocean food web out of balance – and the result is less food for marine wildlife and less ability to breed successfully.

Cassin's Auklets have largely been absent from the Farallon Islands this winter. Photo: Tom Grey

Cassin’s Auklets have largely been absent from the Farallon Islands this winter. Photo: Tom Grey

Observations include:

A dozen Brown Boobies, usually found in Mexico and Central America, are over-wintering on the islands. Photo: Jim Tietz

A dozen Brown Boobies, usually found in Mexico and Central America, are over-wintering on the islands. Photo: Jim Tietz

Climate change is clearly a factor in some, if not all of these unusual occurrences, but it will take ongoing monitoring and time to fully understand the connection. The high elephant seal pup mortality, for example, can be attributed to the decline of sand at the elephant seal breeding colony, which is a result of ongoing erosion from storm surges, an impact of climate change.

“It will take several years to see if these unusual wildlife patterns hold,” says Gerry McChesney, Farallon National Wildlife Refuge Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If they do, it can probably be said that climate change is a major driving force.”

Observations such as those on the Farallon Islands help researchers understand the effects of changing weather patterns and predict their effects on other ocean resources—such as fisheries, which are critical to the survival of seabirds and marine mammals and an important food source for humans.

 

Main Photo:  An elephant seal and her pup on a rocky beach on the Farallon Islands this past winter. Elephant seals prefer sandy beaches, but most of the sandy beaches they once inhabited on the Farallones are now washed out by storm events. Photo: Ryan Berger

Read the full press release, Warm Weather, Warm Ocean Disrupt Wildlife at the Farallones.

Learn about Point Blue’s work on the Farallon Islands.

 

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