What Is Causing The Mass Die-off Of Russian Seals And Other Animals Like Them?

Researchers are now adding the death of more than a hundred seals in Russia to their growing list of animal mass mortality events around the world.

Russian officials are investigating the deaths of 141 Baikal earless seals after experts say they starved to death.

Alexei Kalinin, an attorney, told the Interfax news agency that the seals' growing population could have attributed to their starvation.

“The dead animals were all hungry,” she said. “There was no food in their stomachs.”

The seals who belong to a population of about 13,000 washed up on a shoreline of Lake Baikal near the Mongolian border and the majority was pregnant.

Researchers around the world are tracking mass mortality events from bees, whales and seabird, some say the events are increasing.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2015 found that the magnitude of mass mortality events has been increasing since the 1940s.

Experts have said understanding the cause of the die-offs, from changes in weather, human encroachment onto animal habitats and disease can help.

“Often what we see as some of the reasons for those increases are basically new emerging diseases,” Alessandro Catenazzi, assistant professor in the department of zoology at Southern Illinois University and co-author of the National Academy study, told Newsweek. “We need more time to understand these things.”

An emerging disease has led to the deaths of millions of bats since 2006. The disease labeled by researchers as white-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus. When researchers first noticed the disease, they found thousands of bats dead in caves.

“It was something that I had never seen in my 30-year career,” David Blehert, branch chief for the Wildlife Disease Diagnostic Laboratories at the National Wildlife Health Center, told Newsweek. “We are greatly concerned it will occur next year.”

The National Wildlife Health Center has been tracking animal mortality events since the 1970s and keeps a running list on its site WHISPers

It took a year for researchers to figure the reason for the mass die-off of an entire population of chicks from a penguin colony. Researchers revealed in October that the deaths of the penguins were likely caused by their parents having to travel farther in search of food due to fluctuation in sea ice that caused more sea ice than usual.

For researchers, one of the most recent shocking mass die-offs were that of the Saiga antelope.

In 2015, the population of a species of antelope in Kazakhstan was decimated when researchers counted 200,000 dead carcasses. Pictures of hundreds of Saiga antelope sprawled out dead gained international attention and concern. Researchers later found a severe bacteria in the samples taken from the animals.

Although researching the cause of mass mortality events is crucial, researchers like Samuel Frey, assistant professor of biology at Reed College, say science is still behind on researching the impact these deaths have on ecological systems. 

"What does it mean for the other species these populations interact with," Frey, co-author of the 2015 National Academy study, told Newsweek. "We don’t have a good understanding of the ecological effects of mass mortality events."

 

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