The Most Adorable Victims of Climate Change: Puffin Chicks in Maine

A journalistic collaboration on climate change.
June 2 2014 1:43 PM

The Puffin Cam Will Break Your Heart

Will this year’s chicks be able to choke down strange new fish from the Gulf of Maine?

Puffins!
Puffins at Maine Coastal Island National Wildlife Refuge. Atlantic puffins have been having trouble successfully raising their chicks in warmer water.

Photo courtesy USFWS/Flickr

The new poster child for climate change had his coming-out party in June 2012, when Petey the puffin chick first went live into thousands of homes and schools all over the world. The puffin cam capturing baby Petey’s every chirp had been set up on Maine’s Seal Island by Stephen Kress, “the puffin man,” who founded the Audubon Society’s Project Puffin in 1973. Puffins, whose orange bills and furrowed eyes make them look like penguins dressed as sad clowns, used to nest on many islands off the Maine coast, but 300 years of hunting for their meat, eggs, and feathers nearly wiped them out. Project Puffin transplanted young puffins from Newfoundland to several islands in Maine, and after years of effort the colonies were re-established and the project became one of Audubon’s great success stories. By 2013, about 1,000 puffin pairs were nesting in Maine.

The puffin cam, thanks to a grant from the Annenberg Foundation, offered new opportunities for research and outreach. Puffin parents dote on their single chick, sheltering it in a 2-foot burrow beneath rocky ledges and bringing it piles of small fish each day. Researchers would get to watch live puffin feeding behavior for the first time, and schoolkids around the world would be falling for Petey.

But Kress soon noticed that something was wrong. Puffins dine primarily on hake and herring, two teardrop-shaped fish that have always been abundant in the Gulf of Maine. But Petey’s parents brought him mostly butterfish, which are shaped more like saucers. Kress watched Petey repeatedly pick up butterfish and try to swallow them. The video is absurd and tragic, because the butterfish is wider than the little gray fluff ball, who keeps tossing his head back, trying to choke down the fish, only to drop it, shaking with the effort. Petey tries again and again, but he never manages it. For weeks, his parents kept bringing him butterfish, and he kept struggling. Eventually, he began moving less and less. On July 20, Petey expired in front of a live audience. Puffin snuff.

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“When he died, there was a huge outcry from viewers,” Kress tells me. “But we thought, ‘Well, that’s nature.’ They don’t all live. It’s normal to have some chicks die.” Puffins successfully raise chicks 77 percent of the time, and Petey’s parents had a good track record; Kress assumed they were just unlucky. Then he checked the other 64 burrows he was tracking: Only 31 percent of the chicks had successfully fledged. He saw dead chicks and piles of rotting butterfish everywhere. “That,” he says, “was the epiphany.”

Why would the veteran puffin parents of Maine start bringing their chicks food they couldn’t swallow? Only because they had no choice. Herring and hake had dramatically declined in the waters surrounding Seal Island, and by August, Kress had a pretty good idea why: The water was much too hot.

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On a map, the Gulf of Maine looks like an unremarkable bulge of the North Atlantic, but it is unique. A submerged ridge between Cape Cod and the tip of Nova Scotia turns it into a nearly self-contained bowl. Warm water surging up the East Coast glances off those banks and heads for Europe, bypassing the Gulf of Maine and leaving it shockingly cold. (I’m looking at you, Old Orchard Beach!) Meanwhile, frigid, nutrient-rich water from off the coasts of Labrador and Nova Scotia feeds into the Gulf through a deep channel and gets sucked into the powerful counterclockwise currents. Whipped by that vortex, and churned by the largest tides in the world (52 feet in one bay), the Gulf of Maine acts like a giant blender, constantly whisking nutrients up off the bottom. At the surface, microscopic plants called phytoplankton combine those nutrients with the sunlight of the lengthening spring days to reproduce like mad. That’s how the thick, green soup that feeds the Gulf’s food web gets made. The soup is so cold that its diversity is low, but the cold-water specialists that are adapted to it do incredibly well.

At least, they used to.

Like much of the country, the Northeast experienced the warmest March on record in 2012, and the year just stayed hot after that. Records weren’t merely shattered; they were ground into dust. Temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, which has been warming faster than almost any other marine environment on Earth, shot far higher than anyone had ever recorded, and the place’s personality changed. The spring bloom of phytoplankton occurred exceptionally early, before most animals were ready to take advantage of it. Lobsters shifted toward shore a month ahead of schedule, leading to record landings and the lowest prices in 18 years.

Hake and herring, meanwhile, got the hell out of Dodge, heading for cooler waters. In all, at least 14 Gulf of Maine fish species have been shifting northward or deeper in search of relief. That left the puffins little to feed their chicks except butterfish, a more southerly species that has recently proliferated in the gulf. Butterfish have also been growing larger during the past few years of intense warmth, and that, thinks Stephen Kress, might be a key. “Fish start growing in response to changes in water temperature and food,” he says. “The earlier that cycle starts, the bigger they’re gonna be. What seems to have happened in 2012 is that the butterfish got a head start on the puffins. If it was a little smaller, the butterfish might actually be a fine meal for a puffin chick. But if it’s too big, then it’s just the opposite. That’s one of the interesting things about climate change. It’s the slight nuances that can have huge effects on species.”

Life would go on without puffins. Unfortunately, these clowns of the sea seem to be the canaries in the western Atlantic coal mine. Their decline is an ominous sign in a system that supports everything from the last 400 North Atlantic right whales to the $2 billion lobster industry.

The next sign of deep weirdness arrived in December 2012, when Florida beachcombers began spotting hundreds of what appeared to be penguins soaring above the Miami surf. They turned out to be razorbills, close relatives of puffins that also call the Gulf of Maine home.

Razorbills should be high on your reincarnation wish list. Superb fliers, they can also plunge into the sea and pursue fish underwater by flapping their wings—while dressed in black tie. James Bond, eat your heart out.

But normally, they do all this in the North Atlantic. Suddenly thousands of them had decided to move to Florida. The consensus was that they had simply kept going in a desperate attempt to find food—and that it couldn’t end well for them. It didn’t. By early 2013, hundreds of dead razorbills had washed up along East Coast beaches, most emaciated. So did 40 puffins. “That’s very rare,” Kress says. In fact, finding even a single dead puffin on the beach is unusual. “They’re tough little guys! They’ll live 30 years or more.”

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