Thousands of dead seabirds have been washing up on Dutch beaches, leaving scientists baffled. It started when marine biologist Mardik Leopold received a phone call at home on the remote northern island of Texel; on the line was a volunteer reporting hundreds of dead guillemots washing up on the shore.
"The next morning, my phone rang red-hot from callers all over the country reporting dead birds," Leopold, who's based at Wageningen University's marine research department in the northern port city of Den Helder, told AFP. "Alarm bells started ringing."
Since early January, more than 20,000 dead guillemots have been found dead on Dutch beaches-from the northern Wadden Islands to southwestern Zeeland.
"All the birds show signs of severe starvation and we don't know why," said Leopold.
Together with other marine biologists and veterinary pathologists Leopold will carry out a mass autopsy on February 14th on some 100 birds, hoping to find an answer. Scientists cannot yet explain what has hit the North Sea's guillemot population, which numbers about two million.
However, one possibility is a spill last month from a container ship, the Panama-registered MSC Zoe.
The Dutch and German coastlines were littered with debris, including plastic toys, polystyrene, shoes and at least one bag with a dangerous powder identified by the authorities as "organic peroxide", but there is no proof that it caused the deaths, and the container theory raises as many questions as it would answer.