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Striking centennial-scale changes in the population size of a threatened seabird

Citation

Duda, Matthew et al. (2020), Striking centennial-scale changes in the population size of a threatened seabird, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.44j0zpc8q

Abstract

Many animal populations are under stress and declining. For numerous marine bird species, only recent or sparse monitoring data are available, lacking the appropriate temporal perspective needed to consider natural, long-term population dynamics when developing conservation strategies. Here we use a combination of established paleoenvironmental approaches to examine the millennial-scale dynamics of the world’s largest colony (representing ~50% of the global population) of the declining and vulnerable Leach’s Storm-petrel (Hydrobates leucorhous). By reconstructing the last ~1,700 years of the colony’s population trends, we corroborate recent surveys indicating rapid declines since the 1980s. More surprisingly, however, was that population size was smaller and has changed strikingly in the past, even prior to the introduction of human stressors. Our results challenge notions that very large colonies are generally stable in the absence of anthropogenic pressures and speak to an increasingly pressing need to better understand inter-colony movement and recruitment when inferring range- and species-wide trends. While the recently documented decline in storm-petrels clearly warrants conservation concern, we show that colony size was consistently much lower in the past and changed markedly in the absence of major anthropogenic activity. In response, we emphasize the need for enlarged protected area networks to maintain natural population cycles, coupled with continued research to identify the driver(s) of the current global seabird decline.