Great Breeding Season for Iceland’s Puffins

Puffin Iceland

High numbers of puffin chicks, known as pufflings, have been recorded across Iceland this season. The boom is especially apparent in the Westman Islands, off Iceland’s South Coast, where pufflings have been found weighing double their usual weight. A number of factors, including access to food, are behind the development, Erpur Snær Hansen of the South Iceland Nature Research Centre told Iceland Review.

Heavier pufflings five times more likely to thrive

“Breeding has gone really well around the country, it’s great to see how many pufflings there are,” Erpur says. This includes in the Westman Islands, home to nearly 40% of Iceland’s puffins. Puffin numbers in Iceland have decreased around 44% in the past 15 years. “It makes a big impact to have a strong breeding season like this when there have been a lot of difficult years before. In the Westmans this is around 700,000 pufflings that will mostly survive,” Erpur says.

He is particularly optimistic due to the chicks’ weight. Pufflings can weigh as little as 200-250 grams early in the breeding season. This year, however, the first puffin chick weighed by a monitoring team in the Westman Islands measured 359 grams and the heaviest a whopping 429 grams, which may be a record. Weight can make all the difference to pufflings’ survival, as Erpur explains. “A puffling that is 350 grams versus one that is 250 grams is five times more likely to survive its first winter. So these pufflings are very likely to survive their first year, which is their most challenging one,” Erpur stated.

Algae and fish affect population

One reason the puffins are doing well this year is better access to food. “There is sandeel and also a lot of northern krill,” Erpur says. There has been little sandeel in particular along the south coast since around 2005, he adds, though northern krill has been pushing up the puffling numbers since 2017.

Both northern krill and sandeel feed on small zooplankton, which follow the algal bloom in spring. Off Iceland’s south coast, the bloom has been very late in the season for the past 15 years. “Around 2005 the algae started blooming around two weeks later than before. We still don’t know why that happened, but the bloom timing was much earlier this year than it has been since 2005, now it is what we would consider a ‘normal’ time. That seems to have had a huge positive impact on the sand eel.”

Small temperature difference has big impact

According to Erpur, the ocean temperature off Iceland’s south coast has alternating cold and warm periods lasting around 35 years. It is currently in a warm period which began in 1996. Puffin populations do better during cold periods, though it’s not just the temperature itself that is a factor. “During the cold periods there are more marine animals in Icelandic waters, there are more nutrients in the ocean so the fish get bigger and there’s more food in general,” Erpur explains. “We see that there are a lot more pufflings during these periods when the ocean is colder.”

New research on these cold and warm cycles reaching back to 1880 shows that even small changes in ocean temperature can have a big impact on puffin breeding. “We see that with a change of a one degree celsius in either direction from an annual mean of about 7°C chick production drops by 55%. And that happens with all Icelandic seabirds really.” While the puffin is still at risk, Erpur says the population has been increasing its chick production in recent years. “It mainly depends on how it goes in the Westman Islands, where the population has fluctuated the most. We’ve had a few good years now recently but we’ll have to wait and see whether that continues.”

New Species of Red Algae Discovered in Iceland

Schizymenia jonssonii red algae Iceland

A previously unknown species of red algae or Rhodophyta has been discovered in Iceland. According to a press release from the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, the species was first found just before 1900 on the country’s west coast but was misidentified. It has now been proven to be a formerly unknown species with its closest relatives in the North Pacific.

The algae, which has been named Schizymenia jonssonii in memory of Icelandic phycologist Sigurður Jónsson, is bladelike and can grow to about 35cm (13.7in) long and 10-25cm (3.9-9.8in) wide. It is relatively common near the southwest and west coast of Iceland, along the Northwest peninsula, and has been found at one location along the colder north coast.

“The eastern North Atlantic is probably the best-studied ocean area in the world due to a long history of intensive scientific research in northern Europe,” the press release reads. “It was, therefore, a surprise that this relatively large and conspicuous species had not been identified before.”

MFRI is currently experimenting with growing the algae as a food supplement in collaboration with Hyndla ehf.

Scientists Propose New Theory Of How Marimo is Formed

Scientists researching the ecosystem of Lake Mývatn in North Iceland may have finally answered the longstanding question of how Icelandic marimo, or lake balls—are formed, RÚV reports.

Marimo are perfectly round spheres measuring 10 – 15 cm across and are, as National Geographic explains, composed of an algae species that is actually quite widespread in the Northern hemisphere: Aegagropila linnaei. But the spherical form of this algae is extremely rare and only found in a few places: Lake Akan in Japan, Lake Svityaz in Ukraine, and Lake Mývatn in Iceland.

Although Mývatn’s marimo were designated a protected species in Iceland in 2006, they almost entirely disappeared from the lake in 2013. It’s thought that an excess of cyanobacteria in the lake contributed to the marimo’s decline: photosynthetic cyanobacteria obscure the surface of the water and prevent sunlight from reaching the lakebed where marimo are formed. According to Árni Einarsson, the director of the Nature Research Institute at Mývatn (Ramý), cyanobacteria are a natural part of the Mývatn ecosystem, but pollution in the lake caused an unnatural increase that then had a trickle-down effect on species like marimo.

Despite their decline, however, a small number of Mývatn’s marimo have endured. For reasons that scientists cannot entirely explain, there is less cyanobacteria in the lake this summer and the water is unusually clear—clearer, in fact, than it has been since the 80s. As such, researchers have spent the season investigating, among other things, the necessary conditions for marimo formation. This has been something of a mystery up until now.

Árni says that the scientists now think that marimo can only form in shallow and rather turbulent water. They think they begin to grow on rocks and crags on the shallow bottom of the lake, like moss. Then, as they get larger, they are ripped from their perches by waves and agitation and sent rolling freely through the water. It’s still unknown if this explanation can be applied to the large marimo that once proliferated on the Mývatn lakebed, but it is currently the scientists’ best hypothesis.

Efforts have been made to reduce the amount of cyanobacteria in the lake and hopefully, this will mean that less of it will obscure the surface of the lake in the future.

Start-Up to Begin Algae Cultivation at Hellisheiði Power Plant

The international start-up ON Power will soon be starting an algae cultivation facility at Hellisheiði Power Plant just outside of the Reykjavík capital area, RÚV reports. The company’s owners believe that it won’t be long before algae will be a viable source of protein and nutrients which can be added to a variety of food products.

ON Power signed a 15-year contract with fellow start-up company Algaennovation concerning the sale of resources and property near the Hellisheiði power plant to begin their algae cultivation operation.

Microalgae are an important source of nutrients for animals in the wild and an equally viable as a source of vitamins for human beings. In the beginning, says Berglind Rán Ólafsdóttir, ON Power’s corporate market director, the company intends to cultivate microalgae as a food source for bait fish and then incrementally expand into using it in aquaculture, i.e. as food for farmed fish intended for both animal and human consumption.

In the long term, says Algaennovation founder Isaac Berzin, the is not so much to sell algae as a consumable end-product, but rather to treat and process it so that proteins may be extracted from it and added to other foods.