Foraging plasticity in seabirds: A non-invasive study of the diet of greater crested terns breeding in the Benguela region

Abstract : Marine predators, such as seabirds, are useful indicators of marine ecosystem functioning. In particular, seabird diet may reflect variability in food-web composition due to natural or human-induced environmental change. Diet monitoring programmes, which sample diet non-invasively, are valuable aids to conservation and management decision-making. We investigated the diet of an increasing population of greater crested terns Thalasseus bergii in the Western Cape, South Africa, during three successive breeding seasons (2013 to 2015), when populations of other seabirds feeding on small pelagic schooling fish in the region were decreasing. Breeding greater crested terns carry prey in their bills, so we used an intensive photo-sampling method to record their diet with little disturbance. We identified 24,607 prey items from at least 47 different families, with 34 new prey species recorded. Fish dominated the diet, constituting 94% of prey by number, followed by cephalopods (3%), crustaceans (2%) and insects (1%). The terns mainly targeted surface-schooling Clu-peiformes, with anchovy Engraulis encrasicolus the most abundant prey in all three breeding seasons (65% overall). Prey composition differed significantly between breeding stages and years, with anchovy most abundant at the start of the breeding season, becoming less frequent as the season progressed. The proportion of anchovy in the diet also was influenced by environmental factors; anchovy occurred more frequently with increasing wind speeds and was scarce on foggy days, presumably because terns rely in part on social facilitation to locate anchovy schools. The application of this intensive and non-invasive photo-sampling method revealed an important degree of foraging plasticity for this seabird within a context of locally reduced food availability, suggesting that, unlike species that specialise on a few high-quality prey, opportunistic seabirds may be better able to cope with reductions in the abundance of their preferred prey.
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Davide Gaglio, Timothée Cook, Alistair Mcinnes, Richard Sherley, Peter G. Ryan. Foraging plasticity in seabirds: A non-invasive study of the diet of greater crested terns breeding in the Benguela region. PLoS ONE, Public Library of Science, 2018, 13 (1), pp.e0190444. ⟨10.1371/journal.pone.0190444⟩. ⟨hal-01714108⟩

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