Encyclopedia of Puget Sound

A tale of two islands

Were the islands half full of auklets or were they half empty? One scientist offers an insider's view of a newly published study of two Pacific seabird colonies. He says having good data for the paper was key, but finding the right title didn't hurt.

Adult breeding rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata). Photo: Frostnip (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Adult breeding rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata). Photo: Frostnip (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Science is hard, but coming up with a title for a scientific paper is harder. Exhibit A: the paper some colleagues and I recently published in Marine Ecology Progress Series. Originally I wanted to call it, “A Tale of Two Islands: Disparate Responses to a Marine Heatwave at Two Pacific Seabird Colonies.” I was an English major in college and literary allusions have always appealed to me. (I concede this is obnoxious.) But I felt that title wasn’t too far off the mark. There were indeed two islands — Destruction Island in the California Current off Washington’s outer coast, and Protection Island in the Salish Sea off the north coast of the Olympic peninsula — and the thousands of rhinoceros auklets that bred on each island — roughly 13,000 on Destruction, and more than 70,000 on Protection — had indeed responded in their own ways to the northeast Pacific marine heatwave, known colloquially as The Blob.

The journal editors’ response was brusque: We do not do colons, they informed me. Whatever comes before the colon adds nothing to the document.

Nothing but a dash of elan, I thought indignantly. But it was their journal, so I bid a reluctant adieu to my hommage à Dickens.

I was left with Disparate responses to a marine heatwave… etc., etc. That seemed fine, because, as noted, the responses had indeed differed by island. What my coauthors and I had done was look at how rhinoceros auklets at these two major colonies had fared before, during, and after The Blob, both in terms of breeding success and diet metrics. The Blob had lasted three years, from 2014 through 2016. At the time it was the largest marine heatwave in terms of geographic extent and persistence. We had ten years of data from monitoring the auklets. So how many of their chicks had fledged during the Blob? What did the auklets feed them? That was what we had wanted to know. This was after hearing for several years of all the animals that had died en masse during the Blob: common murres and Cassin’s auklets and gray whales and other creatures all over the northeast Pacific. Or appeared dramatically outside their typical ranges: birds from the Tropics showing up in Oregon, hordes of gelatinous pyrosomes fouling the beaches, subtropical fish flooding into the more temperate zones, plankton communities undergoing radical shifts.

A hillside on Protection Island dotted with auklet burrow entrances. Photo: Eric Wagner

We had expected the auklets to display similar upheavals. They did not disappoint. The birds at Protection Island had fledged fewer chicks for the Blob’s latter two years, while at Destruction Island, fewer adults had even bothered to try to breed during the Blob’s first two years. We were prepared, then, to add the rhinoceros auklet to the list of inordinately suffering animals, with their disparate responses.

But first, a reviewer raised another objection (among a few others; let’s not dwell): Is disparate really the correct word? they asked. Again, as an English major — even a lapsed one — being chided on a word’s proper meaning stung. But when I looked up the definition of disparate (which I probably should have done before I tried to make so much hay out of the word), I saw that the reviewer of course was correct. Disparate means that two things are so different in kind that they essentially cannot be compared. But the point of the whole paper was to compare the responses at the two islands. So, apparently, they were eminently comparable.

Out went Disparate.

 Now I was left with characterizing the auklets’ responses. They weren’t disparate. Were they different? Well, yes, although that seemed kind of boring. Were they contrasting? Sort of, I guess. You would call what happened at Destruction Island an occupancy response, and what happened at Protection Island a breeding response. So in the end I settled on Contrasting Responses… etc., etc. Was it as playful as I thought my original title was? No. Did it depend on an interesting word like the second title? No. But it did have the virtue of all the words being used more or less correctly.

The revision passed muster in other respects, except now the handling editor had a question. Our paper was being considered for a special issue on the effects of marine heatwaves on seabirds. No doubt the handling editor was up to his eyeballs in manuscripts arguing that this species was in the direst of straits from a heatwave; or this one was; or this one; or they all were. He had a good view of the overview, in other words. And what he saw from his 30,000-foot perch was that, unlike the aforementioned common murres or Cassin’s auklets or others, the rhinoceros auklets at Destruction and Protection had actually done reasonably well, all things considered.

So, he wondered, could we think about saying that the rhinoceros auklet was in fact resilient in the face of the Blob?

Now I was the one who had to take a step back. I hadn’t really thought of our work in that way. But it made a certain sort of sense. Yes, the auklets had had a rough couple of years by a couple of measures, but there had not been the specter of mass death that had descended on the other species. The birds at Destruction had taken a year or two off from breeding, as seabirds are known to do in lean years, but burrow occupancy was pretty much back to normal by 2016 — the last year of the Blob! At Protection, meanwhile, they hadn’t raised as many chicks as they had in good years, but we weren’t talking about complete colony failure. Instead, where seven or eight out of ten pairs that laid an egg would raise their chick to fledging, in 2016—the worst year at Protection—only five out of ten pairs raised a chick to fledging. Which wasn’t great, but definitely wasn’t terrible.

There are also elements of rhinoceros auklet life history that argued in favor of them having a greater capacity to withstand changing climate conditions than other species might have. One element was how they were able to make use of a lot of different types of prey. The auklets at Destruction were especially catholic in their tastes. Their diet had changed markedly between 2010 and 2019, going from one dominated by northern anchovy to one dominated by smelt. The auklets at Protection Island, while a bit more constrained in the species they captured—they make do almost entirely on Pacific sand lance and Pacific herring—had managed to catch more fish in years when the average fish were smaller. This was certainly a sign that they needed to work harder to find food, but they had been able to. Also, the auklet chick rearing period is somewhat extended for a bird of their size. Since auklet chicks have more time to grow, they don’t have to be stuffed with food at quite so frantic a rate.

So I changed the title one last time to what it is at present: Resilience to a severe marine heatwave at two Pacific seabird colonies. I also tweaked the discussion a little bit to bolster our newfound optimism. Did this mean I was overly suggestible? Perhaps, although I didn’t think so. Of course there were caveats and qualifications. (This is science, after all.) But I hadn’t redone the analyses or anything on anyone’s say-so. The numbers had not changed at all. What I had been encouraged to change was the framing, the interpretation. See the island as half full of auklets, rather than half empty. See them as resilient. I kind of liked that turn, rare as it is these days in the generally gloomy world of climate science and ecology and biodiversity and conservation. And it was not like this was some sort of hidden message. Really, it had been there all along.

About the Author: 
Eric Wagner is a staff writer at the Puget Sound Institute. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, The Atlantic, and High Country News, among other places. He is the author of “Penguins in the Desert” and co-author of “Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish.” His most recent book is “After the Blast: The Ecological recovery of Mount St. Helens,” published in 2020 by University of Washington Press. He holds a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Washington.