Killer Algae: Key Player In Mass Extinctions
Editor’s Note: A recent toxic algae bloom has caused the deaths of California Sea Lions along the Central Coast of California. Neptune 911 is researching this local information and will report our research results in the near future.
ScienceDaily (Oct. 20, 2009) — Supervolcanoes and cosmic impacts get all the terrible glory for causing mass extinctions, but a new theory suggests lowly algae may be the killer behind the world’s great species annihilations.
Today, just about anywhere there is water, there can be toxic algae. The microscopic plants usually exist in small concentrations, but a sudden warming in the water or an injection of dust or sediment from land can trigger a bloom that kills thousands of fish, poisons shellfish, or even humans.
James Castle and John Rodgers of Clemson University think the same thing happened during the five largest mass extinctions in Earth’s history. Each time a large die off occurred, they found a spike in the number of fossil algae mats called stromatolites strewn around the plane…”If you go through theories of mass extinctions, there are always some unanswered questions,” Castle said. “For example, an impact – how does that cause species to go extinct? Is it climate change, dust in the atmosphere? It’s probably not going to kill off all these species on its own.”
But as the nutrient-rich fallout from the disaster lands in the water, it becomes food for algae. They explode in population, releasing chemicals that can act as anything from skin irritants to potent neurotoxins. Plants on land can pick up the compounds in their roots, and pass them on to herbivorous animals.
If the theory is right, it answers a lot of questions about how species died off in the ancient world. It also raises concerns for how today’s algae may damage the ecosystem in a warmer world.
“Algae growth is favored by warmer temperatures,” Castle said. “You get accelerated metabolism and reproduction of these organisms, and the effect appears to be enhanced for species of toxin-producing cyanobacteria.”
He added that toxic algae in the United States appear to be migrating slowly northward through the country’s ponds and lakes, and along the coast as temperatures creep upward. Their expanding range portends a host of problems for fish and wildlife, but also for humans, as algae increasingly invade reservoirs and other sources of drinking water.
Foam from ocean algae bloom killing thousands of birds
October 22, 2009, 7:36PM
A red-throated loon, covered in foam, lies in the sand near the Klipsan beach approach on the northern end of the Long Beach Peninsula. The bird was still alive when this photo was taken.A slimy foam churning up from the ocean has killed thousands seabirds and washed many others ashore, stripped of their waterproofing and struggling for life.
The birds have been clobbered by an unusual algae bloom stretching from the northern Oregon coast to the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.
“This is huge,” said Julia Parrish, a marine biologist and professor at the University of Washington who leads a seabird monitoring group. “It’s the largest mortality event of its kind on the West Coast that we know of.”
The culprit is a single-cell algae or phytoplankton called Akashiwo sanguinea. Though the algae has multiplied off the coast of California before, killing hundreds of seabirds, the phenomenon has not been seen in Oregon and Washington, and has never occurred on the West Coast to this extent, Parrish said.
“We’re getting counts of up to a million cells per liter of water,” she said. “Think about that. That’s pretty dense.”
Marine biologists said it is not clear why the algae are multiplying, though they do flourish in warm weather. Recent storms could have contributed to the problem, with crashing waves breaking them up.
Helping the birds
The Wildlife Center of the North Coast said it needs cash donations to buy fish to feed the birds, along with good used towels, large dog kennels to carry birds and bleach, as well as experienced volunteers. Contact the center via its Web site at http://www.coastwildlife.org or by mail at: Wildlife Center of the North Coast P.O. Box 1232 Astoria, OR 97103 The algae get whipped by the surf into something akin to a sticky soap that looks like the top of a root beer float. The foam can be deadly to seabirds because it washes off the natural oils that keep them waterproofed.
Without that protection, they get cold, wet, eventually dying of hypothermia.
When they wash ashore, they are covered in foam.
“It looks like they’re lying in a sea of bubble bath,” said Greg Schirato, regional wildlife program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He said thousands had died.
This algal bloom, unlike the toxins produced by blue-green algae, poses no threat to humans or pets. But the bloom could kill fish by clogging their gills, said Zachary Forster, phytoplankton specialist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We haven’t seen any instances of that,” Forster said.
The first seabird die-off in the Northwest occurred in mid-September, with swarms of dead and dying birds washing up on beaches around Kalaloch on the Olympic Peninsula.
At least a thousand scoters, or sea ducks, were killed, Parrish said.
“Then it subsided and we thought it was over, but it started up again,” she said.
This time Oregon was hit as well.
On Tuesday, birds flooded ashore on the Long Beach Peninsula and on beaches as far south as Cannon Beach, prompting an outpouring of calls to the Wildlife Center of the North Coast near Astoria.
The center, the only wildlife rehabilitation facility serving the northern Oregon and Washington coasts, is working around the clock treating more than 500 birds.
“We’re in an emergency crisis mode,” said Dr. Virginia Huang, president of the center’s board.
Not only are volunteers retrieving struggling birds in northern Oregon and Long Beach, but officials from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are also trucking them in from the Olympic Peninsula.
Barbara Linnett, a volunteer at the wildlife center, said the majority of seabirds that have poured in are common murres, common loons, red-throated loons and grebes.
The center feeds them vitamins and fluids to hydrate them, then puts them in shallow pools of water. Swimming in clean water — and preening — helps the seabirds rebuild their waterproofing.
Linnett hopes some of the birds can be released in a few days.
In the meantime, marine biologists from Oregon, Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service are watching conditions closely, hoping that this was a freak event.
The last time it occurred was in 2007 in Monterey Bay, when hundreds of seabirds were killed.
“That event enabled us to figure out what is happening here,” Parrish said.