Predicting the distribution of foraging seabirds during a period of heightened environmental variability
Evans, R and Lea, M-A and Hindell, MA, Predicting the distribution of foraging seabirds during a period of heightened environmental variability, Ecological Applications, 31, (5) Article e02343. ISSN 1051-0761 (2021) [Refereed Article]
Quantifying the links between the marine environment, prey-occurrence, and predator distribution
is the first step towards identifying areas of biological importance for marine spatial planning.
Events such as marine heatwaves result in an anomalous change in the physical environment,
which can lead to shifts in the structure, biomass and distribution of lower trophic levels. As
central-place foragers, seabirds are vulnerable to changes in their foraging grounds during the
breeding season. We first quantified spatio-temporal variability in the occurrence and biomass of
prey in response to an abrupt change in oceanography as a result of a marine heatwave event.
Secondly, using multivariate techniques and machine learning, we investigated if differences in
the foraging technique and prey of seabirds resulted in varying responses to changes in prey
occurrence and the environment over a 2.5 year period. We found that the main variables
correlated with seabird distribution were also important in structuring the occurrence and biomass
of prey; SST, current speed, mixed-layer depth and bathymetry. Both zooplankton biomass and
the occurrence of fish schools exhibited negative relationships with temperature, and temperature
was subsequently an important variable in determining seabird distribution. We were able to
establish correlations between the distribution of prey and the spatio-temporal distribution of
albatross, little penguins and common-diving petrels. We were unable to find a correlation
between the distribution of prey and that of short-tailed shearwaters and fairy prions. For high-use
coastal areas, the delineation of important foraging regions is essential to balance human use of an
area with the needs of marine predators; particularly seabirds.