Seabirds and climate: knowledge, pitfalls, and opportunities
As a physical driver of ecosystem functioning, it is not surprising that climate influences seabird demography and population dynamics, generally by affecting food availability. However, if we zoom in ecologically, seabirds are in fact very heterogeneous, ranging in size from very small to very large species (with a difference of more than two orders of magnitude in body weight), from planktivorous forms to predators of large fish and squid, from benthic to pelagic, from species with small foraging ranges to species feeding throughout the whole circumpolar region, and from resident species (at a spatial mesoscale) to trans-equatorial migrating seabirds that travel large distances across several oceanographic systems. Due to this high variability and the difficulty in obtaining direct reliable estimates of long-term food availability, global climatic indices have been extensively used in studying seabird demography and population dynamics. However, the use made by researchers of these indices has certain conceptual and methodological pitfalls, which I shall address in this review. Other factors, such as anthropogenic impacts (including oil-spills and interaction with fisheries), may further alter or confound the association between climate and seabird demography. These pitfalls and environmental noise, together with the inability to incorporate resilience, may bias our predictions regarding the future impact of global warming on seabirds, many of which have vulnerable populations.
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