The “nocturnal” calls of Qoororsuaq’s little auks | Polarjournal
Little auks are the most abundant birds in the Arctic. They have been fertilizing the soil, attracting gulls, polar foxes and human societies for thousands of years. Image: Monica Ogawa

Using sound, images and artificial intelligence, researchers in Japan and Denmark are tracking changes in little auks in the Baffin Sea with the help of local communities.

Elongated, flapping their wings in direct flight, most little auks around Qoororsuaq ( Northwest Greenland) regularly return to their colonies during the summer, their stomachs full of lipid-rich Arctic copepods. The soundscape is filled with bewitching cries, aggressive growls, cackles and trills. Over a three-day listening period in August 2022, a colony near Siorapaluk showed peaks in intensity lasting several hours, beginning at the lowest light of the permanent day. Researchers from Japan and Denmark published these findings in Communications Biology on March 15.

Both teams met for the first time in the field, one specializing in studying sounds and the other in radar and time-lapse images. Through conversations, they realized that their methods would be complementary, and that, coupled with artificial intelligence, they would be able to continuously monitor the little auk colony.

Lorenz Ferdinand, a late 20th-century Danish ornithologist, described their calls as similar to those of gulls and sirens. Video: Evgeny A. Podolskiy et al. / Communications Biology / Monica Ogawa / PolarJournal

While this study is a conclusive test phase, the spike in sound raises a new question. Why do the birds return to the colony at such late hours, while the copepods surface more than 60 kilometers offshore? “It’s possible that this corresponds to a specific period, when the chicks fledge and head out to sea with their fathers to learn to feed on the currents, first resting on the water, then flying and diving,” explains Anders Mosbech (research director at the Department of Ecoscience, University of Aarhus) in a phone call. Each pair separates and won’t meet again until April or May.

This reunion marks the return of their migration between highly productive ice-free zones in the Baffin Sea and the colony. However, warmer waters could reduce the copepods’ size and lipid content. “The birds would have to expend more energy to meet their needs,” warns Anders Mosbech.

Late activity of little auks has long been known to the Inuit as they hunted them for traditional kiviaq. Video: Monica Ogawa

“The importance of this study goes beyond mere curiosity, as it highlights the crucial role of acoustic monitoring in studying the behavior of wildlife in remote and difficult-to-access areas,” states Evgeny Podolskiy, lead author of the study, in a release from Hokkaido University.

He and his colleagues plan to set up a permanent monitoring system. Working with local residents, they would be able to measure changes in bird habits and reactions to environmental changes. “We’ve been working with two hunters for three years now, and they now know how to ring and track birds,” adds Anders Mosbech.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Podolskiy, E.A., Ogawa, M., Thiebot, J.-B., Johansen, K.L., Mosbech, A., 2024. Acoustic monitoring reveals a diel rhythm of an arctic seabird colony (little auk, Alle alle). Commun Biol 7, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-024-05954-8.

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