Arctic Facts: Bring your bug spray

Thick Billed Murre
Photo courtesy of Dr. Kyle Elliot

Did you know that mosquitoes can kill birds? A seabird colony of Thick-billed Murres (Uria lomvia) on Coats Island, Nunavut nest on its rocky shores. Lethal parasitism (aka; excessive mosquito bites) on the legs and webbed feet of these birds can cause terrible dehydration. Parents trying to rear their young face either; being ravaged by mosquitoes while incubating or tending to chicks, or attempt to escape mosquitoes by heading out to the water leaving an unattended egg or chick behind.  Both adult and chick mortality in this seabird colony was evident in an interesting study; Gaston AJ and Elliot KH (2013) Effects of climate-induced changes in parasitism, predation and predator-predator interactions on reproduction and survival of and arctic marine bird. Arctic 66.1:43-51.

Dr. Elliot, one of the authors behind his study, graciously allowed me to use some of his photos he took during his field work on Coats Island. When asked about his research project and field work, he says “The mosquitoes at Coats Island are the worse I’ve seen anywhere in the Arctic. They wake you up in the morning, pattering on the windows. Their momentum is so strong that you can sometimes lean forward slightly over the cliff and have them hold you upwards. But being a biologist at Coats is nowhere near as bad as being a Murre, at least for those Murres that nest near the top of the cliffs. On hot, windless days, their feet will look like they have fur boots, as they are covered with mosquitoes. To cool down, the birds pump blood to their feet; which is one of the few parts of their body that is exposed. The mosquitoes take full advantage”.

After my chat with Dr. Elliot, I went out and bought a bug net to cover my sleeping bag. I react pretty aggressively to mosquitoes, so hopefully I won’t end up one giant itchy mass of bites.

Here’s a Toast to bug spray! May it be my fighting chance against lethal parasitism.

-Many thanks to Dr. Kyle Elliot for sharing his “field experience in the arctic”

Polar Bear with Penguins
Some unfortunate individuals even get attacked by polar bears if their nests are within climbing reach. Not exactly paradise for the Thick-billed Murre! Photo courtesy of Kerrie Woo

You can read a review of Dr. Elliot’s work in the Nunastiaq online paper:

Or the full paper here:

Polar Bear with Penguins
Photo courtesy of Kerrie Woo
Polar Bear with Penguins
Photo courtesy of Kerri Woo



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