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Behavioural inertia places a top marine predator at risk from environmental change in the Benguela upwelling system
Pichegru, L.; Ryan, P.G.; Crawford, R.J.M.; Van Der Lingen, C.D.; Gremillet, D. (2010). Behavioural inertia places a top marine predator at risk from environmental change in the Benguela upwelling system. Mar. Biol. (Berl.) 157(3): 537-544.
In: Marine Biology. Springer: Heidelberg; Berlin. ISSN 0025-3162; e-ISSN 1432-1793, more
Peer reviewed article  

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  • Pichegru, L.
  • Ryan, P.G.
  • Crawford, R.J.M.
  • Van Der Lingen, C.D.
  • Gremillet, D.

    In variable environments, organisms are bound to track environmental changes if they are to survive. Most marine mammals and seabirds are colonial, central-place foragers with long-term breeding-site fidelity. When confronted with environmental change, such species are potentially constrained in their ability to respond to these changes. For example, if environmental conditions deteriorate within their limited foraging range, long-lived species favour adult survival and abandon their current breeding effort, which ultimately influences population dynamics. Should poor conditions persist over several seasons, breeding-site fidelity may force animals to continue breeding in low-quality habitats instead of emigrating towards more profitable grounds. We assessed the behavioural response of a site-faithful central-place forager, the Cape gannet Morus capensis, endemic to the Benguela upwelling system, to a rapid shift in the distribution and abundance of its preferred prey, small pelagic shoaling fish. We studied the distribution and the abundance of prey species, and the diet, foraging distribution, foraging effort, energy requirements, and breeding success of gannets at Malgas Island (South Africa) over four consecutive breeding seasons. Facing a rapid depletion of preferred food within their foraging range, Cape gannets initially increased their foraging effort in search of their natural prey. However, as pelagic fish became progressively scarcer, breeding birds resorted to scavenging readily available discards from a nearby demersal fishery. Their chicks cannot survive on such a diet, and during our 4-year study, numbers of breeding birds at the colony decreased by 40% and breeding success of the remaining birds was very low. Such behavioural inflexibility caused numbers of Cape gannets breeding in Namibia to crash by 95% following over-fishing of pelagic fish in the 1970s. In the context of rapid environmental changes, breeding-site fidelity of long-lived species may increase the risk of local or even global extinction, rendering these species particularly vulnerable to global change.

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