Seabird Island Ecology


Seabird islands house large colonies of seabirds that feed at sea but return to land to breed. Seabirds deposit large amounts of nutrients of marine origin onto islands; many species also disturb soil and vegetation during the building and maintenance of nests. Nutrient subsidies and physical disturbance by seabirds alter island soils and vegetation and modify plant and animal communities. Introduction of non‐native predators has resulted in population decreases or local extinction of many seabird species. Recent efforts at eradication of introduced seabird predators have been successful, but re‐establishment of seabirds and seabird island communities will likely take additional active restoration. Many other factors impact seabird populations such as overfishing, seabirds caught as by‐catch, increases in sea surface temperature, sea level rise, and various sorts of marine pollution, including plastics consumed by seabirds. These factors directly and indirectly affect the ecology of seabird islands.

Key Concepts

  • Seabirds deposit nutrients of marine origin in terrestrial environments.
  • Seabirds impose physical disturbance on soils and vegetation in the process of building and maintaining nests.
  • Seabird islands often house endemic and native plants and animals that are no longer found on the mainland.
  • The presence of seabirds selects for plants that are tolerant of high‐disturbance and high‐nutrient (i.e. nitrogen and phosphorus) conditions and that increase primary and secondary productivity.
  • Introduced mammalian predators have eradicated seabirds and other species on many seabird islands.
  • The reduction of seabird populations by introduced predators alters plant and animal communities and nutrient cycling.
  • Eradication of seabird predators is a necessary first step towards restoration of seabird islands.
  • Restoration of seabird islands often requires active management of seabirds, other animals and plant populations.
  • Protection of seabird islands will require international cooperation on land and at sea.
  • Several marine environmental issues impact seabird populations and thus also the island communities that are tightly associated with seabird presence.

Keywords: allochthonous inputs; ecosystem engineering; invasive predators; island restoration; nutrient subsidies; predator eradication; climate change; sea level rise; sea surface temperature; by‐catch

Figure 1. Seabird islands from different climatic zones with different nesting types. (a) Burrows created by shearwaters on the Poor Knights Islands, warm temperate New Zealand. Figure courtesy of T. Fukami. (b) Tree‐nesting black noddies (Anous minutus) on subtropical Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Figure courtesy of S. Schmidt. (c) Cliff‐nesting thick‐billed and common murres (Uria lomvia and Uria aalge) on Chowiet Island, Alaska, United States. Figure courtesy of S. Ebbert. (d) Surface‐nesting Great Black‐backed Gulls (Larus marinus) on an island in the Gulf of Maine, United States. Figure courtesy of J.C. Ellis.
Figure 2. Conceptual model of relationships between introduced seabird predators, seabirds and other groups on seabird islands. The area with the blue background constitutes the native community; the area with the yellow background constitutes introduced components. Solid arrows indicate energy flows; dotted arrows indicate other types of impacts. Yellow arrows are direct effects of seabird predators on prey, blue arrows indicate effects of seabirds on other trophic levels (and are therefore indirectly altered by introduced predators when they reduce seabird populations) and green arrows indicate relationships that can be affected by both seabirds and introduced predators. Introduced carnivores are species such as foxes or cats; introduced omnivores are species such as rats or pigs.


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Further Reading

Anderson A (2009) The rat and the octopus: initial human colonization and the prehistoric introduction of domestic animals in Remote Oceania. Biological Invasions 11: 1503–1519.

Mulder CPH, Anderson WB, Towns DR and Bellingham PJ (eds) (2011) Seabird Islands: Ecology, Invasion, and Restoration. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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Wilson K‐J (2004) Flight of the Huia: Ecology and Conservation of New Zealand's Frogs, Reptiles, Birds, and Mammals. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press.

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Anderson, Wendy B, Mulder, Christa PH, and Ellis, Julie C(Feb 2017) Seabird Island Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022557.pub2]