Puffins, auks and guillemots head south each year to more hospitable but isolated islands off Newfoundland, Iceland or Norway
Thousands of seabirds that wash up on Atlantic coasts every year could have been starved to death by cyclones that whip up "washing machine" waves, a new study says, with experts warning the phenomenon could worsen with climate change.
Puffins, auks and guillemots -- hardy little birds that nest in the Arctic -- head south each year to more hospitable but isolated islands off Newfoundland, Iceland or Norway.
But many are found washed up on beaches in mass die-offs that scientists now think are caused by violent winter cyclones that prevent them from feeding.
"Imagine winds blowing at 120 kilometres per hour, waves 26ft and turbulence in the water that disturbs plankton and schools of fish the birds feed on," said David Gremillet of the French CNRS research institute, which coordinated the study published on Tuesday in Current Biology.
Unable to fly clear of the storms, some of which last days, the birds likely cannot dive into the sea to feed or are perhaps unable to see their prey in the troubled waters.
With small reserves of body fat, an auk can die if it goes 48 hours without eating. Gremillet said that scientists had suspected that storms were responsible for killing the birds.