Field of Science


#The Animals Are Dying

Have you heard about all these fish and birds dying? That's probably a silly question, because everyone has heard about it. I went to a trivia night this week where one of the questions was, "In what state did thousands of dead blackbirds fall from the sky on New Year's Eve?" and everyone in the room laughed because the question was so easy.

Given that you've heard about it, are you panicking? Conspiracy theorists seem to be on every online comment thread, speculating that the U.S. government, terrorists, or a shift in the earth's magnetic field are to blame for wildlife deaths. Meanwhile, the AP published a helpful article yesterday that includes actual facts and scientists. Die-offs like these, it turns out, are quite common. But most of these events are not as visible (or Twitter-able) as Arkansas's "aflockalypse." Ornithologist and conservation scientist John Wiens is even relaxed enough to pun about it, saying that large die-offs "generally fly under the radar."

The federal government's National Wildlife Health Center publishes a list of reported mammal, bird, amphibian and reptile die-offs going back to 1995. Wildlife disease specialist LeAnn White says in the AP article, "Depending on the species, these things don't even get reported." Still, an average of 163 events are reported to the U.S. government each year. In 2009, these events included the deaths of 20,000 assorted birds in Idaho (botulism), hundreds of thousands of bats everywhere (more on that in a moment), and one million toads in Washington (fungal infection). If 163 events are reported in this country alone each year, not counting fish kills, then this week's events--a handful of die-offs worldwide, including fish--seems statistically unsurprising.

The poor Arkansas blackbirds apparently died from a trauma they experienced in the air, such as violent weather or a firework explosion. The Arkansas fish likely had a disease, while fish in the Chesapeake Bay may have died after a rapid temperature drop. So far, no need to stock up on canned goods.

But you would still be justified in feeling a little apocalyptic. Forget about the birds for now--how about the bees? Bumblebees have been dramatically declining over the past two or three decades, with the range of some species shrinking by up to 87%. Honeybees are famously disappearing due to the mysterious "colony collapse disorder." Bats are being rapidly wiped out by a fungus called white-nose syndrome. 

Scientists don't know exactly what's killing the bees and bats. But climate change is already affecting the ranges of parasites, fungi, and disease-carrying insects, exposing wildlife (and people) to illnesses they're not prepared for. Extreme weather events are expected to become more likely in the future. And animals and plants, on land and in the sea, will find themselves in warmer (or colder) temperatures than they're used to. 

Entire species are dropping from the sky. Maybe someone can think of a clever hashtag for that.


  1. The bees are freaking me out the most...

  2. You should look up the story of the golden toad in Costa Rica, if you don't know it already. Pretty astonishing evidence of the effects of global warming...

    - Farmer


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