News & Research

Marine biology at the Middleton station extends a legacy of intensive research and monitoring by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey from 1974 through 2012, channels the expertise of collaborating scientists from multiple universities, and yields time series directly relevant to climate change interpretation and prediction.  Research at the station has long set a high standard for innovation, collaboration, and productivity. Since 1984 it has been a prime venue for career development among undergraduates, graduate students, and young professionals.

Current & Future


Kittiwakes, normally a cliff-nesting species, occupy the sides of a building (a decommissioned radar tower) on Middleton. By encouraging and augmenting this behavior (using artificial ledges, one-way mirror glass, and individual “feeding tubes” at the nest sites) researchers are conducting what amounts to a long-term, large-scale experiment—supplemental feeding throughout the breeding season of a sample of birds (n ~ 70 pairs and their offspring), with unfed pairs and their offspring serving as controls. Investigations to date include immunology, endocrinology, fatty acid metabolism, behavioral ecology, genetics, and telomere biology—all in relation to a basic research design that uses supplementally fed birds to evaluate the effects of nutrition. Research on other species (gulls, cormorants, puffins, murres, auklets) targets both natural and artificial nesting habitats, and construction of the latter, optimized for research, is a work in progress. The advent of small, electronic tracking and sensing devices capable of being carried by free-living animals is revolutionizing seabird research. On Middleton, researchers deploy and retrieve devices easily and reliability. Success rates are high and loss of equipment is minimal. The use of bird-borne telemetry devices is thus a growth industry at the station.  Presently, about half the kittiwakes under study are known-age birds (fledglings that returned after 4-5 years to breed on the tower).  The proportion of birds with known history will continue to increase as natal philopatry (tendency to return to colony of origin) is high in kittiwakes.  In a nutshell, ongoing and future research (5-10 years) at the Middleton station emphasizes:
  • Seabirds as indicators of large-scale oceanographic change in the NE Pacific
  • Senescence and life history adaptation in food-stressed individuals and comparisons with supplementally fed treatment groups
  • Seasonal movements and habitat use (summer foraging, migration, and wintering areas) of kittiwakes, cormorants, gulls, puffins, and auklets using satellite telemetry, GPS, and geolocator technologies
  • Using seabirds as samplers of forage fish in the northern Gulf of Alaska and assessing  year-class strength of ecologically and commercially important species
  • Behavioral ecology of black-legged kittiwakes in relation to nutrition and social context

Middleton in the news

People find the story of Middleton–its idiosyncrasies, unique history, and current developments–strangely compelling. Hence, the island garners a notable measure of attention in popular media–newspapers, magazines, radio and TV.  Sometimes, a participant in the bird research feels compelled to share a personal account of the experience. A sampling of known contributions along those lines:

Roosting on a radar tower

Companion article with photographs by E. Manning, Alaska Geographic magazine, vol 38(1).

Experiment of the month

highlight on Middleton tower kittiwake research by S. Reebs, Natural History magazine.