dead blackbird

A dead blackbird, one of about 3,000 found in Arkansas in a mass bird kill. Image by Stephen B. Thorton.

The seemingly random death of wildlife across the world has captured the attention and imagination of people everywhere. It started with the death of 3,000 black birds in Arkansas . That same day, between 80,000 and 100,000 fish were found dead about 125 miles away from the birds. Many of these fish were missing their eyes. Is that a clue?


dead fish

Dead fish found missing their eyes. Image by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

A few days later, fishermen in Brazil happened upon this:


fish kill, Brazil

Fish kill in Brazil. Image from Parana Online.

Over 100 tons of fish showed up dead off the coast of Parana, including sardine, croaker and catfish.

Still, more reports came, from Chesapeake Bay:

chesapeak bay fish kill

A Chesapeake Bay fish kill. Image from the Maryland Deptartment of the Environment.

Two million dead fish, spot and croakers, were found in Maryland. Officials wonder, is it the record cold temperatures?

What if we fly over to New Zealand?

fish kill New Zealand

A New Zealand fish kill. Image by Geoff Dale.

Hundreds of dead snapper found at Little Bay and Waikawau Bay, again many with their eyes missing.

Tired of seeing dead fish? Well, then let’s check out the mass death in England:


crab death

England's crab death. Image from the Thanet Coast Project.

40,000 dead crabs have washed up near Kent, England.

More bird deaths followed, including hundreds of dead doves with a “mysterious blue stain in their beaks” and 50 or so dead birds were found in Sweden. 150 tons of tilapia washed up in Vietnam. So, what’s going on? And don’t tell me about fireworks. Seriously.

Well, mass die offs of animals have been happening for a long time. The U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center has been tracking them since the 1970’s. 95 mass wildlife deaths have occurred in the last 8 months and there is an average of 163 events reported every year. Often they are the result of disease, parasitism or pollution. Sometimes no one knows. The past 8 months included 900 turkey vultures in the Florida Keys, 4,300 ducks in Minnesota, 1,500 salamanders, 2,000 bats and 2,750 sea birds in California. The current ones that have gotten so much attention aren’t even the biggest ones. in 1996, 100,000 ducks died in Canada. The causes of many of these deaths have been figured out. In fact, the crab kill in England has now happened 3 years in a row.

What’s changed this time is that our new awesome social media outlets, such as twitter, facebook and (ahem) blogs have allowed for people to learn about all of these events and for them to be seen on a global scale. And maybe the first one happened on a really slow news day. So this has finally grabbed people’s attention and people are trying to make sense of this phenomenon, which many are hearing about for the first time.

Some examples of the mass kills I’ve come across before include several cited by Rachael Carson in her book “Silent Spring,” which studies showed were related to pesticide use; in Ron Fridell’s book “Amphibians in Danger: A World Wide Warning,” the author describes how the amphibian decline I’ve been talking so much about first became recognized when a young herpetologist found a mass kill of frogs; and in the book “And the Waters Turned to Blood” by Rodney Barker, the author talks about how fish kills occurred with regularity in North Carolina. Disturbingly, these fish kills were linked to a dinoflagellate that released a toxin that caused serious problems in humans, including memory loss and disorientation.

So mass animal deaths have been occurring for decades, but that doesn’t mean that they are all together a natural phenomenon or that people shouldn’t take an interest. These examples I’ve mentioned led to the discontinuation of the worst pesticides as well as stricter studies on new pesticides being produced, the discovery of the UV radiation effects on frogs and the chytrid fungus and an advisory for fishermen to avoid working when there has been recent fish kills in North Carolina. It simply means that the “end of the world” hysteria is perhaps a bit exaggerated.

Want to know about some of the strangest mass deaths every to occur? Check this out. Seriously, follow that link because it is awesomeness.