Rise in Mass Die-Offs Seen Among Birds, Fish and Marine Invertebrates

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dead fish

An analysis of 727 mass die-offs of nearly 2,500 animal species from the past 70 years has found that such events are increasing among birds, fish and marine invertebrates.

At the same time, the number of individuals killed appears to be decreasing for reptiles and amphibians, and unchanged for mammals. Such mass mortality events occur when a large percentage of a population dies in a short time frame.

While the die-offs are rare and fall short of extinction, they can pack a devastating punch, potentially killing more than 90 percent of a population in one shot. However, until this study, there had been no quantitative analysis of the patterns of mass mortality events among animals, the study authors noted:

“This is the first attempt to quantify patterns in the frequency, magnitude and cause of such mass kill events,” said study senior author Stephanie Carlson, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

The study, published today (Monday, Jan. 12) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was led by researchers at UC Berkeley, the University of San Diego and Yale University.

The researchers reviewed incidents of mass kills documented in scientific literature. Although they came across some sporadic studies dating back to the 1800s, the analysis focused on the period from 1940 to the present. The researchers acknowledged that some of their findings may be due to an increase in the reporting of mass die-offs in recent decades. But they noted that even after accounting for some of this reporting bias, there was still an increase in mass die-offs for certain animals.

Overall, disease was the primary culprit, accounting for 26 percent of the mass die-offs. Direct effects tied to humans, such as environmental contamination, caused 19 percent of the mass kills. Biotoxicity triggered by events such as algae blooms accounted for a significant proportion of deaths, and processes directly influenced by climate — including weather extremes, thermal stress, oxygen stress or starvation — collectively contributed to about 25 percent of mass mortality events.

The most severe events were those with multiple causes, the study found.

Carlson, a fish ecologist, and her UC Berkeley graduate students had observed such die-offs in their studies of fish in California streams and estuaries, originally piquing their interest in the topic.

“The catastrophic nature of sudden, mass die-offs of animal populations inherently captures human attention,” said Carlson. “In our studies, we have come across mass kills of federal fish species during the summer drought season as small streams dry up. The majority of studies we reviewed were of fish. When oxygen levels are depressed in the water column, the impact can affect a variety of species.”

The study found that the number of mass mortality events has been increasing by about one event per year over the 70 years the study covered.

“While this might not seem like much, one additional mass mortality event per year over 70 years translates into a considerable increase in the number of these events being reported each year,” said study co-lead author Adam Siepielski, an assistant professor of biology at the University of San Diego. “Going from one event to 70 each year is a substantial increase, especially given the increased magnitudes of mass mortality events for some of these organisms.

This study suggests that in addition to monitoring physical changes such as changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, it is important to document the biological response to regional and global environmental change. The researchers highlighted ways to improve documentation of such events in the future, including the possible use of citizen science to record mass mortality events in real time.

“The initial patterns are a bit surprising, in terms of the documented changes to frequencies of occurrences, magnitudes of each event and the causes of mass mortality,” said study co-lead author Samuel Fey, a postdoctoral fellow in ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale. “Yet these data show that we have a lot of room to improve how we document and study these types of rare events.”

Funding from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation helped support this research. Image Credit GARY MITTELBACH.


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  • Marianne Terrell Morton

    While maybe not everyone’s cup of tea as a resource–a “bible prophecy” webpage, it is the most comprehensive resource I have ever found on this topic.

    I think that the author of the research from Berkeley has severely under-emphasized the scale of this issue. There have already been dozens of these events in 2015 and hundreds to thousands if you scroll through the 2014 list–each is linked and referenced for the skeptical among us ( which should be most of us here)


  • how are the mass births coming along ?

  • Sir TuberKopf

    Fukushima, the gift that just keeps giving, continues to spew highly toxic radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean is dying. The Japanese people who have been highly dependent on sea food for thousands of years are eating from a dwindling supply of contaminated sea food. Even fresh water farmed fish like Tilapia grown in Japan are being fed contaminated feed, and live in contaminated water.

    I see special sales on seafood at the grocery stores, and wonder if it’s on sale because of Fukushima contamination.

  • sharonsj

    Corporations, hedge funds/banks, religious Dominionists, and ignorant peasants are destroying the planet–along with the global warming conservatives claim doesn’t exist. Good thing I won’t live long enough to see humanity kill itself off. P.S. Go read “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy.

    • Lumpy Rutherford

      Oh, please…even with Noaa’s doctored figures, the world temperature has supposedly increased by only one degree Celsius over a span of more than a century. Even if this claim were true, the world STILL isn’t anywhere near as warm as it was prior to the 1500’s, when Greenland got its name because it was GREEN–heavily forested playground of the Vikings. Today, it’s covered with ice. At the same time, England had a climate that was almost Mediterranean–grapes were widely grown there. Can’t grow them in England anymore. Too cold.

  • Fleendar the magnificent

    Remember. The birth pangs of earth in the last days before the second coming of Jesus.
    People have been yelling these are the ‘last days’ for hundreds of years. However, like a pregnant woman, Birth pangs/signs and pains occur from the beginning and increase as time passes coming closer to birth. The same for the earth.
    Things are changing, happening as prophecied by the Bible. We have SEEN the signs for hundreds of years. But in the end times, the signs will increase in frequency and severity. The same as a pregnancy coming to term.

    We are here folks. All one must do is SEE the signs around them to know.

    • Lumpy Rutherford

      I’m inclined to agree, Fleendar…

  • CK

    has any scientist or thinking person even bible thumpers ever considered this is an intentional die off?
    As in THE ELITE, DARPA, aliens or whoever may be trying to put the fear of god into people by using some superweapon aka HAARP to fine tune their killing machines killing frequencies and aiming/targeting skills?
    Scary? Outlandlish? no more than people claiming god/jesus is doing it.
    Project BLUEBEAM already creates ginormous holograms and puts artificial voices in peoples heads, whose to say they cant use it to kill us too?

  • ron17571

    We live with a lot of various chemicals that are just not natural and we are absorbing this into our systems. I read where even the so called safe plastic containers bleed off stuff into what they contain. Just look at how many people get cancer. I don’t eat seafood anymore.I think the oceans are polluted and Japan is poisoning the pacific.The effects won’t be seen for about twenty years.The gulf is a chemical and petroleum poisoned place also. Beef poultry and swine are all (well most) fed crap and live in bad conditions. If you can grow your own food and raise your own food.

  • Fleendar the magnificent

    All we can do is wait and see. Time will tell. It always does.
    However, related to birth pangs and a pregnancy. The signs are always seen in a pregnancy all the way up to the birth. In the case of the end times and birth pangs, sure, the signs have been seen for hundreds of years, but the frequency, intensity, length of time they occur and the preordained signs are ALL occurring in much closer intervals, severity, intensity and timing which all correlates to what was prophesied. The beginning of the birth pangs is very little signs and very few. We are getting MUCH closer to term, and the signs are much more severe, obvious and in frequency.
    Again, time will tell, and you are also correct that we humans have really screwed this planet up in the name of greed and exploitation.

  • Sunny

    Supporting article…

    Mass animal deaths continue from the sea!