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Sea Bird Research

sea bird Research


Seabirds have made the marine environment their home just as much as fish and marine mammals, but instead of swimming, they fly. Their abilities to migrate to different feeding, wintering, and breeding grounds is unparalleled to any other vertebrate species—the Artic tern and sooty shearwater, for example, make the longest migrations of any animal in the world traveling nearly 40,000 miles (64,000 km)!

With populations reaching the hundreds of thousands—even millions in some species—seabirds can play an important role in the overall health of marine ecosystems. Their importance to and dependence on the marine environment, coupled with their abilities to fly internationally, has prompted international research and protection to better understand these species. Several species of Alaskan seabirds have undergone dramatic population declines, most notably certain sea duck populations.

Steller’s (Polysticta stelleri) and spectacled (Somateria fischeri) eiders—two types of sea ducks—have experienced population declines since the 1970’s with little sign of immediate recovery. Today, the Steller’s eider range has diminished significantly, while population sizes have reached a record low for both spectacled and Steller’s eider species in Alaska. This dramatic decline during the recent decades led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the spectacled eider and the Alaska-breeding population of Steller’s eiders in the 1990’s as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Although there are several hypotheses as to why eiders have declined and not recovered, there is no single overriding cause(s) of their declines.

Since 1998, the Alaska SeaLife Center has specialized in sea duck research focusing on species of harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus), surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata), common eiders (Somateria mollissima), spectacled eiders (Somateria fischeri), and Steller’s eiders (Polysticta stelleri). Our studies have also included pigeon guillemots (Cepphus columba), though they are not classified as a sea duck. From 1998-2000, our early research concentrated on harlequin ducks, surf scoters, common murres, and pigeon guillemots as federal funding became available from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOS). EVOS-funded bird research at the ASLC involved examining the indirect and direct effects of crude oil on these specific species. But it has been our most recent research with Steller’s, spectacled, and common eiders that have propelled the ASLC into one of the leading eider research and conservation facilities in the world.

Built exclusively for captive flocks of sea birds, the ASLC completed the construction of a specialized holding facility for eiders in 2002. We currently maintain captive flocks of Steller's (40 individuals) and spectacled (13 individuals) eiders housed specifically for research purposes. In 2007, infrastructure expanded to accomodate our conservation initiatives to enhance wild populations of Steller's eiders. The ASLC has also housed a captive flock of common eiders (8 individuals) when up until recently, were moved to Dry Creek Waterfowl in Port Angeles, WA where they are completing the final phases of a research project that originated at the ASLC. Prior to our dedicated Eider Program, the ASLC also maintained 21 wild-caught harlequin ducks, common murres which participated in a series of satellite transmitter efficacy tests, and temporarily housed—and subsequently released—wild-caught pigeon guillemot eggs and 37 hatchlings.

The ASLC has been one of the principal organizations conducting research to support recovery of threatened spectacled and Steller’s eiders since 2001. For over six years, our Eider Research Program has been involved with field, laboratory, and captive studies on Steller’s and spectacled eiders in Alaska. Currently, the ASLC houses captive flocks of both spectacled and Steller’s eiders, making our organization the only facility in the world to house these for research and conservation purposes. Truly ambassadors to their species, these flocks have been integral in our research to better understand eider biology, ecology, and  the effects of disease, nutrition, genetics, and contaminants on wild populations of Steller’s and spectacled eiders.

Our current eider research at the ASLC has been modeled after priorities set forth by the Eider Recovery Team, a federally appointed team of scientists and resource managers. Each project has been justified as either determining cause(s) for the declines, or contributes to the overall recovery of the species. All ASLC eider research projects conducted in the U.S. are federally permitted and undergo Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) reviews. ASLC eider research can be broadly categorized as follows:

  • Reproductive biology and physiology
  • Disease ecology and epidemiology
  • Nutrition and foraging ecology
  • Request for Proposals (RFPs)
  • Conservation and recovery initiatives

To learn more about these specific research topics and how they impact marine mammals, explore each dedicated species page.

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