How Puffins On The Gulf Of Maine Act As ‘Sentinels Of Climate Change’

Surrounded by screeching, poop-bombing seabirds on a secluded island off the coast of Maine with no running water or electricity is not how most college students would choose to spend their summer vacation. 

“It’s definitely an uncomfortable lifestyle,” says Kay Garlick-Ott, the supervisor Eastern Egg Rock island, and ecology PhD student at U.C. Davis. “But there’s a beauty to it. Being surrounded by nature and wild animals is an immense privilege and not one many people get to have anymore.”

Every year, Garlick-Ott and her research students spend several summer months censusing the charismatic birds of the island: Puffins, Terns, and Guillemot. The team collects data on their populations, chick survival, and diets as they return from hunting trips.

The rugged experience provides them all with a crash course in field research and an opportunity to directly contribute to the decades-long conservation work of the Audubon Society’s Project Puffin, which has helped manage and restore bird populations on several islands since the 1980s. 

But from their unique vantage on the island, Garlick-Ott and the other researchers can already see that rough seas are ahead for the island’s denizens. The Gulf of Maine, where the birds hunt for small fish, is heating up faster than nearly every other ocean on Earth, creating a cascade of changes in the local food chain. They’ve documented more and more puffins return to feed their chicks with inedible or low quality warm-water fish, such as Butterfish and rough scad, while their staple herring vanishes from the menu. 

“I like the terms sentinels of climate change. They are showing us something’s wrong,” Garlick-Ott says.

Although she feels that there is little she can do to turn the tide of climate change, she hopes that shining a light on the struggles of these birds will help the public and future conservationists see the rocky shoals looming on the horizon.


Produced and Filmed by Luke Groskin
Music by Audio Network
Additional Footage and Stills Provided by the Maine Public,  Audubon Seabird Institute,, LandSAT 8/ US Geological Society, Steve Kress and
Digital production by Daniel Peterschmidt
Special Thanks to Kay Garlick-Ott, Jasmine Eason, Emily Sandly and Donald Lyons

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About Luke Groskin

Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.

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