October 30, 2009—Hundreds of birds—including this loon pictured on the Oregon coast in fall 2009—are washing up on the shores of the U.S. Pacific Northwest coated with a foamy sea slime, scientists say.
The slime, which comes from algae blooms in the ocean, saps the waterproofing ability of the birds' feathers, experts say.
"If you had somebody dump water on you and rub soap all over you, you'd be wet and slimy," said Jay Holcomb, executive director at the International Bird Rescue Research Center.
That's essentially what happens to the birds, after their waterproofing is compromised. "Then they have to beach themselves, because they are cold and wet."
Untold hundreds have died, succumbing to hypothermia or predators such as eagles, Holcomb added.
Nearly 500 of the slimed birds have been transported to the rescue center in Fairfield, California, which was specially built to care for coastal wildlife contaminated with oil. Many of the slime victims have been released.
Several hundred more birds are also being treated at facilities in Oregon and Washington State.
Sea Slime's Global Warming Connection?
Unlike an oil spill, the algae blooms that create the slime occur naturally when certain conditions coincide in the ocean.
Those include upwelling of nutrients and warmer-than-usual ocean waters.
Research suggests that recently, the blooms are larger, lasting longer, and happening with greater frequency.
(Related: "Giant, Mucus-Like Sea Blobs on the Rise, Pose Danger.")
For instance the first time the 40-year-old rescue center treated slime-affected birds was in 2007.
Warming sea temperatures due to global warming could be a link, Holcomb added.
"They are finding that the [nutrient] upwelling is happening at different times of the year than it used to," he said, "and that's because currents and weather are changing."
—John Roach in Seattle, Washington