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Stormy outlook for long-term ecology studies

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Stormy outlook for long-term ecology studies

The closure of a 40-year project to understand and protect seabirds shows the false priorities of funders, warns Tim Birkhead.

NATURE October 2014 PDF

In the early months of this year, a series of fierce storms battered Europe’s western seaboard. Seabirds struggle to feed in rough water, and some 40,000 of them soon washed up dead on beaches. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of such storms, so to understand the impact of global warming on ecosystems, we need to analyse the long-term biological impact of these events.
Until recently, I was in an excellent position to do this. For more than 40 years, I have studied populations of guillemots on Skomer Island, off the coast of Wales. My research has revealed, for example, that the birds now breed two weeks earlier than they did in the 1970s, probably owing to climate change. This kind of research is not easy. It has taken four decades to accumulate the data necessary to understand how the population works because to do so requires accurate measures of how long adult guillemots live, how many chicks they produce, how old they are when they breed, what proportion of young birds survive to breed and so on. No more. Funding for the project has been axed. As it stands, I have no money to pay a research assistant to help me identify and count exactly how many of the birds have managed to survive the storms. To assess the storms’ effects, we need to gather data from the 2015 breeding season to feed into the statistical models we use to calculate survival. It is frustrating that officials chose this moment to terminate our funding, when we have such an important opportunity to assess the vulnerability of seabirds to climate change. Guillemots are one of our most abundant seabirds, and they are excellent indicators of the quality of the marine environment. For example, they are desperately vulnerable to oil pollution, and tens of thousands have died in oil spills such as those resulting from the sinking of the Torrey Canyon (1967) and Erika (1999) oil tankers. Partly as a consequence of such disasters, guillemot numbers have fluctuated widely over the past 80 years….

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