Roaming from sea to shore: building new models to help conserve seabirds

by ZSL on

By IOZ Post-Doctoral research assistant, Henry Hakkinen

There isn’t a complex definition for what is and what is not a “seabird”. A “seabird” is simply any bird that relies on marine habitat for a large part of its lifecycle. As such, they are a diverse group of birds with varied habits and habitats; to some the word “seabird” evokes a huge, noisy, metropolitan, breeding colony perched above a crashing sea, where a dozen species mix and cry in a deafening chorus. To others it brings memories of thieving gulls slapping chips out of an inattentive hand and descending like raptors on ill-gotten gains. Some think of lonely travellers voyaging over desolate oceans; albatrosses acting as the sole companions to a ship’s crew far from land. As for me, I think of long days on the granite cliffs of Scotland and Cornwall, dodging the vomit of fulmars and spending hours on lonely ledges watching gannets soar and then suddenly plummet like a missile into the Atlantic.

two puffins

Threats on land and at sea

Some seabirds are coastal and stick close to land, others are pelagic and range over the open ocean. But they, as a group, are closely tied to both the land and the sea and therefore face threats on both; in fact they are collectively one of the most threatened groups of all birds. On land introduced predators can drastically impact nesting seabirds, and extreme rain and wind can both destroy nests and hinder foraging for adults. At sea, bycatch claims a huge number of seabirds every year, and lack of prey due to competition with fisheries has also led to population declines in many species. In addition, the effects of climate change have been felt by many seabird populations around the world, and its impacts are likely to increase as climate changes and disrupts terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

What are we doing to help?

In order to help conserve our seabirds, our team at ZSL, along with colleagues at the University of Cambridge, are currently running a project to collate and predict the ways climate change could impact seabirds in Europe, as well as review conservation actions to mitigate impact. This is not a straightforward task, especially considering how complex climate change is, and we use a variety of tools and methods to help us, some of which have been developed by ecology and conservation researchers before us, some of which we are building ourselves. One of our newly developed methods was recently published in Ecology and Evolution, in which we share a new type of model that assesses how climatically suitable areas are for seabirds, and how they may change in the future. I’ll explain shortly how we are using these models to support seabird conservation, but let’s dive (like a gannet) into a little background on ecological modelling.


Ecological modelling

Climate change acts on both terrestrial and marine habitats and can rapidly change the conditions that seabirds face. But how do we know if this is a problem? What sort of conditions do seabirds thrive in, and how can we spot if they are changing for the worse? Often, we estimate this through mathematical models, and one commonly used type are the “species distribution models” (SDMs). At its core an SDM looks for correlations between where a species occurs and the kind of environmental conditions it inhabits, in order to build a picture of the types of conditions the species prefers. However, seabirds present a problem for conventional SDMs, as they are reliant on both marine and terrestrial habitats, especially during the breeding season. Previously published SDMs do not have any way to include both marine and terrestrial factors, as they are completely different types of variables and do not (typically) overlap. This severely limits their uses when considering species that use both marine and terrestrial habitats, such as seals, turtles and, of course, seabirds.

New research

And that leads us to our recent paper, where we developed a way to combine terrestrial and marine conditions in a single model, and unravel more about where and why breeding sites are suitable for a given species. In our paper, we trialled several ways of combining terrestrial and marine information, and tested them on three seabird species, namely the Atlantic puffin, Northern gannet, and Roseate tern. For each species we considered 1) what sort of terrestrial conditions do they prefer to breed in, and what kind of nearby marine conditions do they prefer to forage in? 2) when foraging at sea, what are the conditions on nearby areas of land like and how suitable are they as breeding sites? We found that combined models improved predictions of seabird breeding ranges, and in some cases were a drastic improvement over previously existing models. The proximity and variety of different types of marine and terrestrial habitats are key factors in seabird breeding success, and our new type of model can now assess how they can interact and determine site suitability.

Next steps

Building and testing models can be quite an abstract process, and it’s important to come up for air and remember why we are making them. So what can we do with these models? I mentioned already that to understand present and future threats to seabirds, we need tools, and our combined terrestrial and marine SDMs are one (potentially powerful) tool in that arsenal. We are using our combined models to assess what parts of Europe are currently suitable for seabirds, and what areas may change rapidly in the near future. This forms one important part of our climate change vulnerability assessment, which then informs our review of potential conservation actions for each species. The full species-by-species assessment will be coming out next spring and summer (for those interested I am currently knee-deep in petrel literature).

ZSL is urging world governments, global corporations and policy makers to put nature at the heart of all decision making, and it’s the support and encouragement of the public that makes our work possible. You can support our world-leading science and conservation work by donating online. We hope you find some time and space to watch seabirds in the near future, and hope you enjoyed the post!

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