Understanding nutrient feedbacks across seabird-island-reef systems

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28 May 2024

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Erin Robinson | Tetiaroa Society



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Animals can act as important vectors of nutrients throughout ecosystems, driving patterns in vegetation and animal biomass. However, introduced species, hunting, and man-made barriers have greatly reduced the prevalence and magnitude of these ecological linkages. Seabirds foraging at sea deliver and concentrate large quantities of nutrients onto the islands on which they roost and breed through guano, feathers, and carcasses. These seabird-derived nutrient subsidies can bolster plant and invertebrate biomass on islands, and leach into nearshore marine environments to enhance fish biomass and functions. With introduced rats and other pests decimating seabird populations across 90% of the world’s island archipelagos, the importance of restoring seabird-derived nutrient subsidies is raising interest in rat eradication efforts. This offers a conservation strategy that could benefit both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Rat eradication may also benefit low-lying reef islands if seabird nutrients enhance reef growth and sediment supply, and thus help mitigate the impacts of sea-level rise. There is currently limited understanding of the role of seabirds on tropical island nutrient cycling; the spatial and trophic extent of nutrient export across the surrounding coral reef seascape; and the benefits of these nutrient flows to reef growth and sediment generation. Further, knowledge of the effects and timescales of subsidy returns following rat eradication, and how rapidly adjacent marine ecosystems respond, is central to planning effective conservation efforts. This project will study islands with long-term rat populations, islands that have never had rats, and islands where rats have been eradicated, spanning the Indian and Pacific Oceans (Tetiaroa, Chagos, Seychelles, Reunion). In summary, this project seeks to quantify the importance of seabird nutrient subsidies to nutrient cycling and understand wider effects on island ecosystems and coral reef ecology, and associated feedback loops. Such understanding will support tropical island conservation and restoration efforts.


Courtney Stuart


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