Puffins in peril? Matt Wood on seabird populations

Our academics aren’t just pretty good lecturers (we’re ranked 4th in the UK by the Guardian for Biosciences), they’re also involved in research that’s important at both national and international levels. We think this strong research activity underpins our excellence in teaching. Here Matt Wood talks about his work on seabird population biology.

An adult breeding puffin, complete with colour rings: individuals can be identified without the need to recapture them. Photo: Dave Boyle
An adult breeding puffin, complete with colour rings: individuals can be identified without the need to recapture them. Photo: Dave Boyle

Everyone loves a puffin, right? Jaunty little guys with amusing habits, waddling to their burrows to delight the tourists and nature lovers on islands like Skomer in west Wales. On Skomer I coordinate the monitoring of a population of Atlantic puffins that started in 1973, before I was born! As an ecologist interested in seabird populations, it’s fascinating and awe-inspiring to look at long-term databases like this, the result of decades of fieldwork not just on puffins but also razorbills, kittiwakes, herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls. Long-term studies are essential if we’re to understand seabird populations, to see how they respond to change in the environment like oil spills or climate change.

Last year’s fieldwork on Skomer was particularly important because it followed a severe weather event that killed tens of thousands of seabirds in the North-West Atlantic – a seabird wreck – including thousands of puffins, razorbills and guillemots, and some ringed birds from Skomer Island. After weeks struggling to feed in storms that raged on for weeks, they eventually starved to death and were washed up on the Atlantic coast of Europe from Wales to France. Field assistants, PhD students and island wardens waited for their puffins to return to Skomer and Skokholm Islands, and found that about 25% fewer breeding adults returned than they’d normally expect, on both islands. From a population of about 20,000 puffins, that’s a suspected death toll of 5,000. Breeding was also affected, with chicks hatching three weeks later than usual, being fed at about a third of the rate, and productivity (number of chicks per pair) crashing by 25% – most likely these are serious knock-on effects of the winter storms. Click here to view the TV coverage.

Matt on BBC Wales talking about the effects of the seabird wreck on Skomer and Skokholm Islands
Matt on BBC Wales talking about the effects of the seabird wreck on Skomer and Skokholm Islands

That’s a big hit for the population. Puffins are long-lived seabirds that raise only one chick per year if all goes well, and if so many adults die in one year that’s a large reduction in future recruits to the population. So did the population crash? Funnily enough, it appears not, or at least not yet. In 2014 Skomer recorded their second highest count of puffins, just a little down on the biggest count in 2013. Their best guess at the total population size seen on the sea around the island in April, and it’s looking like numbers are up again in 2015. So no need for concern? Some might say so, that we needn’t worry about what makes the population tick if the numbers are on the up, but that’s a seriously risky strategy…

Puffins don’t breed until they’re 4 or 5 years old, so the increasing populations may be made up of lots of these ‘teenagers’ hanging around, but not breeding. It’ll take years to see the effects of the 2014 seabird wreck ripple through the population, and we can only do this with a long-term study of individually-marked seabirds whose breeding success is also monitored. Fortunately I receive a funding contribution from the UK government for the fieldwork to keep up with the long-term studies on Skomer, via JNCC’s Seabird Monitoring Programme, but others haven’t been so lucky. Once a long-term study stops, the chain of data is broken, and it’s gone forever. For studies that cost peanuts in today’s world of big-budget science, that’s tragic.

Puffins, and other seabirds are in trouble. Yesterday, the Atlantic puffin was reclassified as ‘endangered’ on the EU Red List of Birds, due to worrying declines in the North Sea and beyond in Norway and Iceland. So things look fine on Skomer, for now, but will the warming seas implicated in the North Sea declines of seabirds come south as the climate changes? What will those effects be on the seabirds of west Wales?

EU Red List of Birds, published by BirdLife International
EU Red List of Birds, published by BirdLife International

So it’s vital that these studies keep going, to understand the what the future might bring by understanding how the populations fared in the past, vitally important in our rapidly changing world. We’re doing our bit, with a study of how climate affects the demography of Manx shearwaters, but there’s much more to do. There are some really talented statistical ecologists out there, coming up with new ways of understanding how populations work (do get in touch if you want to play with our data!) – who knows what we’ll be able to do with these data as new techniques evolve? Long-term studies reveal how populations work, so that we can understand how to look after them, what we can do to help. The alternative is just to count the birds, knowing that’s not really good enough, and if things go wrong all we’ll be able to do is shrug our shoulders and wonder if we could have done something about it with a long-term study.

Dr Matt Wood, Senior Lecturer Biosciences, @wood_mj


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