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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Science Issue: How can we save seabirds from extinction?

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    18 Jan

    Science fact

    Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy. 

    Find out more

    Blue Planet II, the BBC natural history series, has enthralled the public over the last few months with its spectacular wildlife footage. While most of the programme’s episodes showcased new scientific findings and never-before-seen animal behaviour, the finale took a more serious note. A series of marine biologists revealed the devastating impact that humans are having on the health of marine ecosystems, including plastic litter causing the direct death of some albatross chicks on Bird Island, South Georgia.  

    Plastics have been recorded in the stomachs of albatrosses as well as marine pollutants in their tissues but it is only one of the many dangers faced by this group of seabirds. Albatrosses are very long-lived and cover extreme distances in search of food, which makes them vulnerable to a wide range of threats, in particular incidental mortality associated with commercial fishing activities. These seabirds tend to forage behind fishing vessels and can end up as ‘bycatch’ if they accidentally become hooked on baited fishing lines, entangled in fishing nets or collide with trawl cables 1.

    Albatross and petrel species are now the most globally-threatened of all groups of birds, with 19 out 29 of their species listed as threatened by the IUCN 2. A range of bycatch mitigation measures have been developed but not all fisheries have adopted these new practices, which is worrying as climate change is likely to exacerbate the demographic consequences of incidental bycatch 3. For example, a population of grey-headed albatrosses crashed in 2000 due to a peak in fishing effort and poor food availability induced by an El Niño event.

    It is evident that concerted international conservation efforts are required to save these species from extinction, and that potential management plans should be informed by continued scientific research into their ecology, at-sea distribution and demography 4. Albatrosses vary remarkably in their individual at-sea distributions, in relation to external (e.g. seasonality of resources) and internal processes (e.g. reproductive constraints) which both drive their movement in space and time, and determine how vulnerable they may be to potential at-sea threats.

    My PhD project will focus on determining the environmental and ecological processes driving the differential habitat use of closely-related albatross and petrel species, the fitness-related repercussions associated with different movement ‘strategies’ and the implications for conservation. I will be collaborating with the British Antarctic Survey and analysing a large database of seabird species tracked from Bird Island, South Georgia, to answer these questions. You can find out more about these colonies on the British Antarctic Science website5 and help reduce at least one threat to their survival by choosing not to use plastic, especially when it is single-use or non-recyclable. 

    Caitlin Frankish
    First year PhD student
    Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge
    British Antarctic Survey

    References

    1.            Phillips, R. A. et al. The conservation status and priorities for albatrosses and large petrels. Biol. Conserv. 201, 169–183 (2016).

    2.            Croxall, J. P. et al. Seabird conservation status, threats and priority actions: a global assessment. Bird Conserv. Int. 22, 1–34 (2012).

    3.            Pardo, D. et al. Additive effects of climate and fisheries drive ongoing declines in multiple albatross species. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 114, E10829–E10837 (2017).

    4.            Poncet, S. et al. Recent trends in numbers of wandering (Diomedea exulans), black-browed (Thalassarche melanophris) and grey-headed (T. chrysostoma) albatrosses breeding at South Georgia. Polar Biol. 40, 1347–1358 (2017).

    5.            Higher Predators – Bird Island – Albatrosses and giant petrel monitoring - Project - British Antarctic Survey.