Source: USFWS / Wikipedia Commons
A mysterious seabird that forages at the face of shrinking tidewater glaciers highlights the 12 Alaska species red-listed as critical by the Audubon’s 2007 Watchlist, released this week and posted online.
The little-known Kittlitz’s murrelet — a species so elusive that scientists didn’t record its croaking call for the first time until a few years ago— has crashed by more than 80 percent since the 1970s throughout its icy range rimming the Gulf of Alaska.
The birds, genetic cousins to puffins and murres, spend summers diving for food in the meltwater rivers that flush from glacial faces, while nesting in the mountains on the ground. Almost nothing is known about their ecology and life cycle — only a few dozen nesting sites have ever been documented and no one really knows much about where the birds spend winters.
Yet the shrinkage of glaciers, and the rapid increase in freshwater at glacial faces, appears to have decimated the bird’s food sources or made it much more difficult to snatch eats. Example: Something like 63,000 murrelets were thought to summer in Prince William Sound in the 1970s. By 2000, the number had dropped to an estimated 1,000.
It’s possible that the world population of the murrelets is now as low as 7,000, according to 2004 estimates.
“The fate of the Kittlitz’s murrelet likely hinges on the fate of Alaska’s glaciers, and therefore may be among the world’s first avian species to succumb to effects of rising global temperatures,” wrote federal biologists John Piatt and Kathy Kuletz in a 2004 scientific paper.
They called it “Alaska’s avian ‘poster child’ for global climate change.”