Seabird population ecology

Current research

CEH's research is currently focused on a number of related research projects:

Long-term seabird studies (IMLOTS)

The Isle of May is one of four key UK seabird monitoring sites supported by the JNCC (Joint Nature Conservation Committee). CEH has an ongoing contract to collect basic data on adult survival, breeding success and diet: the data feed into the national Seabird Monitoring Programme network. The Isle of May long-term study (IMLOTS) also forms part of CEH's network of monitoring sites for evaluating the effects of climate change. Coastal ecosystems are subject to large and complex climate-related changes, sometimes in the form of sudden shifts from one state to another. Our long-term data on top predators are being used to monitor and understand these changes in two ways: firstly by relating aspects of seabird performance (e.g. foraging success, timing of breeding and breeding success, adult survival) to anthropogenic and environmental factors operating at various spatial and temporal scales; and secondly by using seabirds as indicators of environmental change.

Seabirds and climate change

Like all components of marine food webs, seabirds are affected by ongoing and future climate change. Both fish and the plankton they feed on have shown clear changes in distribution, abundance and seasonal cycles, and this is bound to affect top predators like seabirds. Our unique long-term data allow us to disentangle climate effects from all the other factors affecting seabird populations, and we can also use data collected from seabirds to monitor effects on the marine environment in general. Read more about our climate change research.

Coastal environment, seabirds and their prey

CEH has been involved in several EU projects, notably ELIFONTS, IMPRESS, PROTECT and FACTS, looking at the interactions between the coastal environment, seabird predators and prey. These projects have aimed to quantify the effects of fisheries and oceanographic drivers on prey availability to seabirds. An important component of these projects has been the use of miniaturised, state-of-the-art loggers attached to birds to provide extremely detailed information on seabird foraging dynamics. This approach also provided 3D data on hydrography in coastal areas at greater spatial and temporal resolution and lower cost than achieved by conventional boat-based surveys, and it clearly offers enormous potential to study hydrodynamics in coastal regions.

Marine renewables

Marine birds face potential risks from offshore wind turbines including direct collisions and indirect effects such as displacement from foraging habitats. CEH is involved in a range of projects investigating the impacts of renewables on seabirds. Offshore from the Isle of May, where CEH conducts its long-term seabird research, The Forth and Tay Offshore Wind Developers Group (FTOWDG) have received exclusive licences for wind farm developments.  CEH has been commissioned by FTOWDG to assess the level of connectivity between seabird usage of marine environments under consideration for development and the SPA network of protected breeding colonies, a fundamental part of the consenting process, based on animal tracking.  Animal tracking using transmitting or archival data loggers is the most appropriate method of establishing the connectivity of these species to particular Natura 2000 sites.














Marine Protected Areas

Marine Protected Areas are a potential management option for safeguarding populations of targeted species and associated top predators. Decisions on the size and location of MPAs have been hindered by lack of data on the behaviour and mobility of the targeted species and ecosystem processes, including functional relationships with top predators. Closed areas are a particularly attractive management option for sedentary, short-lived species that are subject to a directed fishery, because protected habitats support all age classes and recovery is more rapid than with long-lived species. As part of our research, we have been examining whether the sandeel closure off eastern Scotland has improved the breeding success of seabirds.

Nutrient cycling in coastal ecosystems

Seabirds play an important role in the nutrient cycling of remote coastal ecosystems by transferring nitrogen from the marine to the land environment. In the past, most attention has focused on direct local effects of seabird deposits, but recent work by CEH has shown that ammonia evaporation from excreta is also very important. Measurements of atmospheric ammonia around seabird colonies show that emissions are substantially larger than those generated by human activities at point sources such as poultry farms. Seabird colonies are often in remote areas that have previously been considered pristine because of the lack of human activities there. Clearly this view is too simplistic and the local and regional effects of seabird-derived ammonia need to be taken into account. CEH has recently completed a global database of ammonia emissions from seabird colonies.

Seabird pathogens

The role parasites play in driving seabird population dynamics has been largely ignored, despite the fact that seabirds are hosts to a wide variety of endo- and ectoparasites that reach high densities in most colonies and can act as disease vectors. CEH has been investigating the effects of parasites on the foraging performance and breeding success of European shags.  Our research has found that successful breeding of shags on the Isle of May was constrained by parasitism, providing the first evidence that parasites play an important role in this system.  We also aim to understand the mechanisms that maintain pathogen diversity using Great Island Virus as a study organism. Great Island Virus is a tick-borne virus, found globally, that infects seabirds. It can appear in a variety of genetic and physical forms. Work on the Isle of May established that Great Island Virus is chiefly supported by ticks feeding on common guillemots. On the Isle of May, we assess the impact of virus infection on seabird mortality and breeding success.