Seabirds and wind - the consequences of extreme prey taxis in a changing climate

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: College of Medical, Veterinary &Life Sci


As the world's climate warms due to the emission of greenhouse gases, the distribution and population sizes of the organisms that make up ecosystems are changing. For example, some European songbirds are expanding their ranges northwards, while others are declining. These effects are of concern not only from a species conservation perspective but because healthy ecosystems provide services vital to humanity. For example, plants produce the oxygen we breathe and insects pollinate plants, enabling food production. As such, there is an acute need to forecast the responses of organisms to climate change so that they can be mitigated in an effective and timely manner.

My proposed fellowship concerns one group of animals that may be particularly vulnerable to climate change: albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters (or simply, 'petrels'). These large-to-medium sized seabirds are remarkable for their ability to fly vast distances in search of food. For example, great shearwaters migrate across the equator each year, allowing them to exploit summertime peaks in food abundance in both the North and South Atlantic. Along with other large predators, like whales and sharks, feeding petrels congregate in so called hotspots caused by the ocean circulation patterns. Petrels are able to travel rapidly between these hotspots and their breeding colonies because of their ability to use the wind to fly. This, however, means that their movements are limited by prevailing wind patterns: Like the sailing ships of old, they need to avoid headwinds and areas of calm. Global wind patterns are forecast to change markedly as the world warms. For example, wind speeds in the 'horse latitudes', a belt of already light winds in the sub-tropics, are predicted to decline, while those at temperate latitudes will increase. At the same time, as the oceans warm, the distribution of the fish, squid and crustaceans that petrels feed on is predicted to shift towards the poles. While these changes could benefit some petrels, they may harm others. For example, during migration, great shearwaters could become becalmed in mid-ocean, where food is scarce and the chances of starvation high.

These impacts may have wider implications because, like plants and insects, petrels provide some important ecosystem services. For example, by depositing nutrient-rich guano in their colonies they support entire ecosystems on some islands. Less is known about related mechanisms in the sea but studies on large whales, which have similar diets to petrels, give some clues: They suggest that by recycling or transporting nutrients, seabirds stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, the tiny green algae that form the base of the marine food pyramid. Phytoplankton are also important because they draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, slowing the rate of climate change.

Despite the threats posed to petrels by climate change there are some large gaps in our understanding of their lives. To-date, the majority of research on these species has been carried out in very remote areas, like the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica. In contrast, remarkably, little is known about the lives of petrels in the deep Atlantic, despite the fact that this ocean is bounded by some of the world's most developed nations. The aim of my fellowship is therefore to use the Atlantic as a laboratory in order to determine how petrels have been affected by recent changes in the climate; how they affect phytoplankton growth and carbon dioxide levels; and how they may respond to future climate change. I will achieve this by recording the movement, behaviour and diet of petrels at sea using miniature loggers and ship-based sampling. I will then combine these data, using computer models, with data on wind and ocean conditions and petrel population changes, in order to predict how petrel movements, population sizes and ecosystem services will change in the future.

Planned Impact

My fellowship will benefit academics in the UK and abroad by developing the disciplines of ecology, marine science and global change biology. It will build academic capacity in the University of Glasgow, contributing to the UK's continued role as a world-leader in the earth sciences. It will do this by forging links within and across disciplines and institutions to develop our understanding of and ability to predict the roles of mobile higher predators in planetary-scale processes. Moreover, it will not only allow me to develop as an academic but also benefit up-and-coming scientists by providing post-graduate supervision and leadership. These gains will continue to accrue both during and after my fellowship through new and ongoing collaborations in the UK and abroad.

My project will benefit public conservation bodies (SNH, JNCC, OSPAR, etc.) and resource management organisations (ICES, RFMOs, etc.) by informing their efforts to meet their conservation obligations at the domestic (Marine Scotland Act, UK Marine Policy Statement), European (the EU Marine, Habitats and Birds Directives) international levels (ACAP, the OSPAR and CCAMLR conventions, etc.). Furthermore, it will assist wildlife conservation in the British Overseas Territories (BOTs), where four of my study species breed and which the Environmental Audit Committee has recently highlighted as a conservation research priority. Benefits to conservation NGOs (the RSPB, BirdLife International, WWF, etc.) will include: improved estimates of the past, present and future distributions and population sizes of petrels; spatial estimates of bycatch risk; and estimates of the relative impacts of climate change, bycatch and other factors on petrels. In particular, my project will help organisations working to conserve and manage living resources in high seas areas of the Atlantic (OSPAR, IUCN, GOBI, etc.), for example, by aiding the identification of higher predator foraging hotspots and candidate marine protected areas. Data and insights provided by my fellowship will allow the refinement of coupled atmosphere-ocean-ecosystem models. In the longer term, this will reduce uncertainty around climate change forecasts, aiding policy-makers and climate mitigation managers by allowing them to make better evidence-based decisions. Moreover, by quantifying the ecosystem services provided by seabirds, my project will provide a clear rationale for the protection of these and other higher trophic level species.

My fellowship will help UK business and industry by providing intellectual capital during and after the project. For example, the UK is a leading supplier of wildlife management and environmental consultancy services. The growth of these sectors is contingent on innovations in monitoring and analytical techniques (animal tracking, spatial modelling, etc.) developed through projects such as this one. Similarly, climate change mitigation, which looks likely to become a major industry, will gain from improved ecosystem forecasts and understanding of the factors responsible for carbon drawdown.

Young people will benefit from my fellowship through outreach activities targeted at schools in remote communities in the Northern Isles of Scotland, the Azores and the BOTs. By learning about the global migrations of local seabirds, pupils will make connections with their peers around the Atlantic, broadening their views of the world and inspiring them to act as future custodians of the marine environment. The public at large will benefit from access to information about the lives of seabirds, which many people find intriguing creatures. This is evinced by the explosion of interest in recent years in wildlife media and tourism. Lastly, I hope that my project, and many like it, will be of benefit to current and future generations by leading to the better understanding and preservation of ecosystem services.


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Description The project is still in the data collection phase. However, findings to date include:

Significant new knowledge generated:

1. Discovery that the sooty shearwater population of Kidney Island, the main colony of the species in the Falkland Islands, contains approximately 140,000 pairs (95% CI: 90,000 - 210,000). This is an order of magnitude greater than some previously reports suggest.
2. Discovery, by GPS-tracking, that this population feeds predominately on the Burdwood Bank during the incubation period. This feature, to south of the Falklands is a hotspot for marine diversity and is currently being considered as a Marine Protected Area.
3. Discovery that albatrosses are most efficient at gaining speed from the wind in cross-wind, rather than downwind flight.
4. Discovery that fulmars route foraging trips around weather systems to take advantage of favourable winds.
5. Discovery that during the summer petrels partition habitats in the deep Northwest Atlantic by water mass (fulmars in cold waters on and to the north of the sub-polar front; great shearwaters between the sub-polar and mid-Atlantic fronts and Cory's shearwaters south of the mid-Atlantic front.)
6. Discovery that primary production in surface waters of the Northwest Atlantic is iron limited during the summer.
7. Discovery that seabirds are able to supply bio-available iron in this area through defecation, potentially stimulating primary production.

New or improved research methods or skills developed:
1. Improved methods for the capture and recapture of shearwaters at breeding colonies have been developed.
2. Improved methods for catching and sampling petrels at sea have been developed.

Important new research questions opened up:
1. Is the sooty shearwater population in the Falkland Islands increasing, bucking the global declining trend?
2. How does efficient crosswind flight limit the movements of albatrosses?
3. Do fulmars use simple, probabilistic, rules to coordinate their foraging movements with the passage of weather systems?

Particularly noteworthy new research networks/collaborations/partnerships, or combinations of these:
Collaboration with the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute and the Falklands Islands Government, on sooty shearwater movements, population size and conservation in the Falkland Islands.
Collaboration with Dr Phillip Richardson, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, on seabird flight and wind.
Collaboration with Carina Gjerdrum and Rob Ronconi, Environment Canada, on shearwater distribution, movements, foraging and population dynamics in the mid-North Atlantic.
Collaboration with Prof. Gail Davoren and Dr Paloma Carvalho, University of Manitoba, on shearwater movements, foraging and moult in the mid-North Atlantic.
Collaboration with Dr Vladimir Laptikhovsky (Cefas) on cephalopods in shearwater diet.
Collaboration with Dr Igor Belkin, University of Rhode Island, on the effects of fronts on the distribution of seabirds in the mid-North Atlantic.
Collaboration with Mr Tyler Clark, University of Montana, on shearwater breeding biology and impacts of invasive canids

Increased research capability generated from training delivered in specialist skills:
EW received training in techniques for catching seabirds at sea from the NOAA Stellwaggen Bank Marine Sanctuary, USA.
EW received training in offshore survival techniques and other course needed in order to act as Principal Scientist on research cruises.

Summary information combining outcomes detailed in other sections:
The project is still in the data collection phase, with much of the past year having been spent setting up fieldwork, which will be completed in the coming year. In addition, analyses of seabirds and wind are ongoing, with some results currently being written up for submission to peer-reviewed journals.
Exploitation Route Results from research cruise DY080 and ongoing analysis of seabird tracking data in the North Atlantic have contributed to a recent submission by project partner BirdLife International to OSPAR to designate the Evlanov Seamount area of the NW Atlantic as an Important Bird Area. This process is ongoing.

Sooty shearwater population and distribution data collected by the project will be used by the Falkland Islands Government to manage the Kidney Island Important Bird Area and to minimise threats from fisheries. These data are also being used by the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute to lobby for MPA status for the Burdwood Bank.
Sectors Energy,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description (1) In the early stages of my fellowship I discussed the motivating concepts with the author Adam Nicholson, as part of his research for a book for the general public on seabird biology. I also acted as a reader for drafts of the book. The book was published as 'The Seabirds Cry' (William Collins) in 2017 to widespread critical acclaim. (2) Initial results from a research cruise DY080 have been used to support a proposal by BirdLife International to OSPAR to designate a large area of the deep North Atlantic as a Marine Protected Area. This proposal is currently (March, 2018) at an advanced stage of consideration. (3) In addition, a website covering cruise DY080 was widely accessed. (4) Reports on fieldwork on sooty shearwaters and burrowing petrels appeared in the print and radio press in the Falkland Islands. This generated considerable local interest in the work and in issues around seabird conservation in the Falklands.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Creative Economy,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description Falkland Islands Government Environmental Studies Budget
Amount £4,500 (GBP)
Organisation Falkland Islands Government 
Sector Public
Country Falkland Islands (Malvinas)
Start 08/2016 
End 07/2017
Description Lister Bellahouston Travelling Fellowship
Amount £960 (GBP)
Organisation University of Glasgow 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2016 
End 03/2017
Description The Seabird Group Research Grant
Amount £480 (GBP)
Organisation The Seabird Group 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 02/2018