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Heat-related massive chick mortality in an Imperial Cormorant Leucocarbo atriceps colony from Patagonia, Argentina

Abstract

Climate change has exacerbated the frequency and severity of heat waves, which on occasion lead to mass mortalities. Here, we report a massive mortality event in Imperial Cormorant Leucocarbo atriceps chicks that took place during December 2016 at Punta León, one of the two largest colonies (> 6000 pairs) and the northernmost colony for the species in coastal Patagonia, Argentina. During a 2-day period, we estimate that approximately 86.5% of the chicks died. Our results suggest that the mortality event was heat-related, as consequence of an intense heat wave during the brooding period. During two consecutive days, chicks between 12 and 19 days old were exposed to air temperatures above the historical mean of maxima for a total of 25 h. On one of these days, the air temperature reached a maximum of 38.1 °C with records above 35 °C sustained during four consecutive hours. Chicks were found dead throughout the colony, mostly in the nests with no evidence of external injuries other than occasional scavenging by seagulls. Acute mortality from disease was ruled out based on clinical presentation and negative results for avian influenza virus, saxitoxins, and domoic acid (two common marine toxins). Our work underscores the importance of long-term studies in understanding heat associated breeding failure of one of the largest Imperial Cormorant colonies along its breeding range in coastal Patagonia.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Dr. Pierre Anton Pistorius, Dr. Katrin Ludynia, one anonymous referee, and the editor Dr. Dieter for their suggestions that improved the manuscript. We express our gratitude to Tinio Resnik who reported the cormorant mortality on December 17th, 2016. We also thank La Chola, Miguel, Nicolás Prandoni, and Estancia El Pedral for assistance in various aspects of this research. We acknowledge Dr. Takashi Yamamoto for the pictures taken at the colony on our visit on December 20th, 2016. We specially thank W. Helbling for helpful comments on early versions of the manuscript and N. Montoya from Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo Pesquero (INIDEP) for her help with the toxicological analysis. Logistical and institutional support was provided by the Instituto de Biología de Organismos Marinos (IBIOMAR-CONICET) and the One Health Institute, University of California, Davis. We thank the Ministerio de Desarrollo Territorial y Sectores Productivos and the Secretaría de Turismo de la Provincia de Chubut, Argentina, for the permits to work at Punta León protected area (permit 2016: 096-SsCyAP/16).

Funding

This study was funded by grants from the National Agency for Scientific and Technological Promotion of Argentina (PICT 2013 – 1229), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Center for Research on Influenza Pathogenesis (CRIP) (contract HHSN272201400008C), and the Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria (INTA) (PNSA 1115052 and PNSA 1115056).

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FQ, AGL, and MU conceptualized the initial research question. AGL, MU, and LG collected the data. AGL completed statistical analysis with the help of FQ. MBM performed the toxicological analysis, and AR performed the virological testing. FQ wrote the original manuscript. AGL, MU, and LG contributed to reviewing and editing. FQ and MU acquired funding. All authors read and approved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Flavio Quintana.

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Quintana, F., Uhart, M.M., Gallo, L. et al. Heat-related massive chick mortality in an Imperial Cormorant Leucocarbo atriceps colony from Patagonia, Argentina. Polar Biol 45, 275–284 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-021-02982-6

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Heat wave
  • Thermoregulation
  • Die-off
  • Leucocarbo atriceps