Riddle of the Rhinos

By Bob Friel

Rhinoceros Aucklet. Photo by Joe Gaydos. 

Rhinoceros Aucklet. Photo by Joe Gaydos. 

Were they poisoned by harmful algae? Did they get outcompeted by an increasing humpback whale population? Or is a warming ocean shifting their food supply? Aided by citizen scientists on both sides of the border, researchers are trying to figure out why Rhinoceros Auklets—the unicorns of the seabird world—are washing up dead in unusually large numbers this year around their most important Salish Sea breeding colony.

There’s been concern in recent years about food supplies for diving birds like auklets and other puffins. Observations from Protection Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca show that breeding success of the 72,000 Rhinos nesting there was about half normal levels. And trained beach surveyors from the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) discovered as many as 100 times the number of dead Rhinos they’d expect to find in an average July. So what’s going on?

Necropsies fingered both starvation and pneumonia, but there’s not enough data to know which came first: sickness or lack of food. Stay tuned for the results.

Interested in being a part of citizen science seabird survey work? Become a COASST volunteer. SeaDoc feels so strongly about the work of COASST we helped fund their expansion into the San Juan Islands in 2001. Sign up at their website.