Puffins are facing a perilous future. Population numbers have fallen sharply, and there are even fears the sea bird could be heading towards extinction within the next 100 years.
A much loved and enigmatic creature, puffins are easily identified by their wonderfully coloured beaks. They waddle around in a characterful fashion and make the strangest of noises. Their endearing features have been used as the symbol of children’s books, and to illustrate many stamps – but they are now also appearing on lists of endangered species.
On Britain’s Farne Islands, numbers have gone down 12% on average over just five years, with one island’s population falling by 42%.
The common puffin, named after its puffed-up swollen appearance (although its scientific name, Fratercula arctica, arises from its resemblance to a friar wearing robes) has an extensive range across the northern hemisphere, with breeding colonies from Norway to Newfoundland.
Around 90% of the global population is found in Europe, with 60% of the population breeding in Iceland (which is also home to a tradition which involves children rescuing young, wayward puffins – “pufflings” – and returning them to the safety of the sea). The UK is home to 10% of the global puffin population, breeding on many islands and mainland coastal areas.
Although there are around 450,000 puffins in the UK, the species is threatened with extinction due to their rapid and ongoing population decline. Recent surveys of the Farne Islands revealed that despite a steady increase over the previous 70 years, numbers have declined by as much as 42% over the past five years.
Unfortunately, we know very little about the ecology of the puffin outside the breeding season. Although the birds amass in large numbers to breed, they spend two-thirds of their life alone, out in the north Atlantic sea. Consequently, they are very difficult to monitor.
What’s causing the decline?
Firstly, although puffins live for a fairly long time (the oldest recorded so far reached the age of 34), their breeding population is limited to a small number of sites. They also have a low reproductive rate, laying just one egg a year, which makes them particularly vulnerable to adverse changes in the environment and means they can take a long while to recover from negative impacts.
They are also hunted – by humans and other animals. Smoked or dried puffin is considered a delicacy (or a flavouring for porridge) in some places, such as Iceland and the Faroe Islands. But although they were once over harvested by people, hunting is now maintained at a sustainable level.
During the breeding season, puffins nest in burrows on clifftops. Although this offers the nest protection from aerial predators, such as gulls, chicks and eggs are not safe from mammals, including weasels and foxes. On Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, the population of puffins fell to just 10 pairs, but since the eradication of rats there, things are looking up. Nevertheless, the Arctic skua can be a particular problem as it steals food from adult puffins which is intended for their young.
Living on the open ocean makes the puffin highly susceptible to pollution such as oil spills. After the Torrey Canyon oil spill in 1967, the number of puffins breeding in France the following year decreased by a massive 85%.
The puffin feeds almost entirely on small fish, including sandeels, herring and capelin, which make up over 90% of the diet of pufflings.
The birds have a specialised beak with backwards facing spines, which prevents their prey (up to around 60 fish at a time) from falling out of their mouths when foraging. But in years where the main food source is low, many chicks starve to death.
Puffins have also suffered increased mortality from the rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather events associated with climate change. A recent succession of severe storms caused 54,000 seabirds, half of which were puffins, to be washed up along coasts. Starvation was cited as the main cause of death.
On a cliff edge
Sea temperatures have increased over the past 30 years, causing indirect effects on puffin survival. The rise in temperature decreases the abundance of plankton, which in turn leads to a reduction in the growth and survival of young sandeel and herring on which the puffins rely, particularly during the breeding season. Conditions in the North Sea are even causing some puffins to travel into the Atlantic, rather than the North Sea, in search of food – a perilous trek involving greater distances and different habitats.
It seems that a combination of factors are to blame for the decline in puffins, but the reduction in their food supply, particularly as a result of increased sea temperatures, appears to be the main culprit.
We need to continue monitoring puffins worldwide to better understand factors affecting populations. Hopefully, we can put measures in place to minimise pollution, reduce introduced predators and promote sustainable harvesting to try and ensure that the fate of this wonderful bird is not the same as that of the dodo.
Keen students of climate politics might recognise November 30 as the anniversary of the opening of the historic Paris climate summit two years ago. But you might not know that today also marks 30 years since Australian scientists first officially sounded the alarm over climate change, at a conference hailed as the dawn of the ongoing effort to forecast and monitor the future climate of our continent.
November 30, 1987, marked the start of the inaugural GREENHOUSE conference hosted by Monash University and attended by 260 delegates. The five-day meeting was convened as part of a new federal government plan in response to the burgeoning global awareness of the impending danger of global warming.
The conference’s convenor, the then CSIRO senior research scientist Graeme Pearman, had approached some 100 researchers in the months leading up to the conference. He gave them a scenario of likely climate change for Australia for the next 30 to 50 years, developed with his CSIRO colleague Barrie Pittock, and asked them to forecast the implications for agriculture, farming and other sectors.
As a result, the conference gave rise to a book called Greenhouse: Planning for Climate Change, which outlined rainfall changes, sea-level rise and other physical changes that are now, three decades on, all too familiar. As the contents page reveals, it also tackled impacts on society – everything from insurance to water planning, mosquito-borne diseases, and even ski fields.
Internationally, awareness of global warming had already been building for a couple of decades, and intensifying for a couple of years. While the ozone hole was hogging global headlines, a United Nations scientific meeting in Villach, Austria, in 1985 had issued a statement warning of the dangers posed by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Pearman wasn’t at that meeting, but he was familiar with the problem. As he wrote after the 1987 conference, the strength of the Villach statement was “hardly a surprise, as recent evidence had suggested more strongly than ever that climatic change is now probable on timescales of decades”.
Meanwhile, the Commission for the Future, founded by the then federal science minister Barry Jones, was seeking a cause célèbre. The Australian Academy of Science organised a dinner of scientists to suggest possible scientific candidates.
The commission’s chair, Phillip Adams, recalls that problems such as nuclear war, genetic modification, artificial intelligence, were all proposed. Finally, though:
…the last bloke to talk was right at the far end of the table. Very quiet gentleman… He said, ‘You’re all wrong – it’s the dial in my laboratory, and the laboratories of my colleagues around the world.’ He said, ‘Every day, we see the needle going up, because of what we call the greenhouse effect.‘
The GREENHOUSE 87 conference was hailed as a great success, creating new scientific networks and momentum. It was what we academics like to call a “field-configuring event”.
British magazine New Scientist covered the conference, while the Australian media reported on Jones’s opening speech, the problems of sea-level rise, and warnings of floods, fire, cyclones and disease
The GREENHOUSE conferences have continued ever since. After a sporadic first couple of decades, the meetings have been held biennally around the country since 2005; the latest was in Hobart in 2015, as there wasn’t a 2017 edition.
What happened next?
The Greenhouse Project helped to spark and channel huge public interest in and concern about climate change in the late 1980s. But politicians fumbled their response, producing a weak National Greenhouse Response Strategy in 1992.
The Commission for the Future was privatised, the federal government declined to fund a follow-up to the Greenhouse Project, and a new campaign group called Greenhouse Action Australia could not sustain itself.
Meanwhile, the scientists kept doing what scientists do: observing, measuring, communicating, refining. Pittock produced many more books and articles. Pearman spoke to Paul Keating’s cabinet in 1994 while it briefly pondered the introduction of a carbon tax. He retired in 2004, having been reprimanded and asked to resign, ironically enough for speaking out about climate change.
As I’ve written previously on The Conversation, Australian policymakers have been well served by scientists, but have sadly taken little real notice. And lest all the blame be put onto the Coalition, let’s remember that one chief scientific adviser, Penny Sackett, quit mid-term in 2011, when Labor was in government. She has never said exactly why, but barely met Kevin Rudd and never met his successor Julia Gillard.
Our problem is not the scientists. It’s not the science. It’s the politics. And it’s not (just) the politicians, it’s the ability (or inability) of citizens’ groups to put the policymakers under sustained and irresistible pressure, to create the new institutions we need for the “looming global-scale failures” we face.
A South Australian coda
While researching this article, I stumbled across the following fact. Fourteen years and a day before the Greenhouse 87 conference had begun, Don Jessop, a Liberal senator for South Australia, made this statement in parliament:
It is quite apparent to world scientists that the silent pollutant, carbon dioxide, is increasing in the atmosphere and will cause us great concern in the future. Other pollutants from conventional fuels are proliferating other gases in the atmosphere, not the least of these being the sulphurous gases which will be causing emphysema and other such health problems if we persist with this type of energy source. Of course, I am putting a case for solar energy. Australia is a country that can well look forward to a very prosperous future if it concentrates on solar energy right now.
That was 44 years ago. No one can say we haven’t been warned.
The link below is to an article that reports on threats to rare Geckos in Malaysia.
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