A large international study shows that seabirds, unlike many other animal groups, have not shifted their breeding season in response to climate change. This may result in a temporal mismatch between seabird breeding and the availability of their prey.

Text: Camilla Næss, NINA

Many fish, and most crustaceans and other marine animals at lower trophic levels are characterized by relatively short generation times, and thereby have the ability to adapt rather rapidly to a changing environment. Seabirds, however, are long-lived organisms and their populations may thus need much longer time to adapt. With rising sea temperatures, this can result in a mismatch in timing between seabirds’ breeding and the peak abundance of their prey.

An international group of seabird scientists has assessed much of what is available of long time series on the annual timing of seabirds’ breeding in a new study that is based on 145 seabird populations at 60 locations around the world between 1952 and 2015. During this period, the sea surface temperature rose sharply.

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The study shows that seabirds in general have not altered their phenology in relation to increasing sea surface temperatures, and they are still breeding at the same time as they have done for decades. In the longer term, this may have unfortunate consequences for many seabird populations as they risk suffering severely from increasing levels of trophic mismatch.

Contact person: Tycho Anker-Nilssen, NINA

European shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis on the nest with 3 small chicks.
Photo: Tycho Anker-Nilssen