Imagine a world where everyday, you devise peculiar strategies to protect the local Black Guillemot colonies from virtual extinction. After 40 years of observing an arctic ecosystem changing due to climate change, and seeing the population of those black seabirds dwindle due to longer summers, invading Horned Puffins, and hungry polar bears, you come up with a solution so brilliant that only a true professional in the biological sciences could have come up with the plan:
Put… a canary… inside of a locked suitcase. Step two: Watch a polar bear struggle to open it for hours, allowing the nearby Guillemot ample time to escape. Step three: ??? Step four: Profit.
Welcome to the world of Dr. George Divoky, a researcher from the Smithsonian who has spent three months every summer since 1975 on Cooper Island studying seabirds, collecting ample data pointing to the effects of global warming on the Black Guillemots inhabiting the edge of the arctic pack ice. With his work featured in the New York Times Magazine, as well on Late Night with David Letterman, Divoky’s work provides one of the best, known examples of the correlation between the amount of species and the retreating polar ice caps.
In the past decade, different species of birds have been beginning to breed in the same cavities, which have led to the Horned Puffins aggressively killing off or displacing the eggs of the Guillemot. According to Divoky, polar bears have also been roaming the area more in recent years, ravaging the black birds not yet taken care of by the Puffins. Recalling the time when he woke up in a tent next to a 600 pound polar bear that was blocking the way to his shotgun, Divoky laments, “Once you’ve seen a polar bear where you’ve never seen one, it is a mid-brain response.”
His body of work attempts to describe the patterns and reasoning behind the changes. “Climate change is a selection effect,” according to Divoky. Noting the role that ice plays as an ecosystem or superstrate for algae and phytoplankton, he points out the displacement of the Arctic cod by Sculpin as a major factor n the Guillemot’s troubles. What was once an overabundance of Guillemot in the area is now a situation where the bird species are barely reproducing enough. When the high-quality prey began to disappear, and when the length of the snow-free period came down, the black seabirds once known for their huge colonies on Cooper Island began to face incredible pressures from various aspects of the ecosystem.
While Dr. Divoky acknowledged that warming was initially good for the bustling Black Guillemot numbers, the continuation of it over the years led to the sorry state for his favorite observed species. Looking forward, Divoky hypothesizes that the polar bear population on the island will thin out as well, since female bears can’t swim miles between smaller ice caps and still ensure that they will have enough to lactate for their young.
For more information about George Divoky’s research, or to help contribute, visit the Friends of Cooper Island website at cooperisland.org where you can “Adopt a Nest Site” and watch your seabird develop!
Tags: Andrew Pham, arctic, Guillemot