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Current Research Programmes

Conserving Southern Ocean seabirds

Seabirds are among the most threatened groups of birds because they face challenges both at their breeding sites and at sea. Almost one-third of all seabirds are on the global Red List, and they comprise nearly half of all threatened birds in South Africa. The Fitz’s Seabird Research Programme assesses the severity of threats faced by seabirds, and attempts to provide practical management solutions to reduce these threats. Southern Ocean species are mainly threatened at sea by fishing mortality and climate change. Monitoring seabirds provides a window into the health of the Southern Ocean.

Most field work takes place through the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP) at the Prince Edward Islands, Tristan da Cunha and Gough Islands. Fitztitute seabird research on Marion Island, the larger of the two Prince Edward Islands, has continued unbroken since the early 1980s, when a series of long-term seabird study colonies were established by John Cooper. Servicing these long-term studies through a succession of three-year research projects is challenging, and currently is by three collaborative projects with CoE team members at NMU (Pierre Pistorius and Maëlle Connan) and DEA (Azwianewi Makhado) as well as Environmental Conservation Officers appointed by DEA. This project overlaps with the Island Conservation project .

Activities in 2019

  • Peter Ryan and post-doc Ben Dilley published papers on population sizes and trends among seabirds breeding at Inaccessible and Nightingale Islands. Numbers of Spectacled Petrels Procellaria conspicillata, endemic to Inaccessible Island, continued to increase over the last decade, and a new census technique was implemented to provide a more sensitive way to track future population changes.
  • Ben published the final paper from his PhD which assessed how different approaches to estimating burrowing petrel populations depend in part on the dispersion of nests. He also led on a paper reporting inter-species interactions among petrels in their nest burrows.
  • NMU post-doc Andrea Thibault, working with Pierre Pistorius’s group, reported the first evidence of penguins calling underwater while foraging, based on video footage from three sub-Antarctic penguin species.
  • Florian Orgeret continued his post-doc at NMU, comparing seabird tracking data from Marion Island with similar data collected by French researchers at the neighbouring Crozet islands.
  • Stefan Schoombie continued his PhD on fine-scale foraging behaviour of albatrosses and petrels. He published a paper describing an automated method to estimate bank angles in flying seabirds from video footage from bird-borne cameras. He is relating the insights into dynamic soaring learned from linking this footage to matched accelerometer and magnetometer data so that he can infer how albatrosses change their flight behaviour in relation to local wind conditions throughout their foraging trips. Stefan returned to Marion Island for a third year in April 2019 as field assistant on Maëlle Connan’s SANAP project on burrowing petrels.
  • NMU PhD student Tegan Carpenter-Kling published two papers: one on Gentoo Penguins as sentinels of climate change at the Prince Edward islands, and one on the factors affecting δ13C values of seabird tissues.
  • Kim Stevens continued with her PhD on the demography and at-sea movements of Grey-headed Albatrosses Thalassarche chrysostoma. During the year she also collected seabird at-sea data on the spring SCALE cruise and mid-summer SANAE cruise.
  • Alexis Osborne completed his MSc on the moult of Wandering Albatrosses and giant petrels while based on Gough Island, submitting the dissertation in early 2020.
  • Lilli Ruiters continued an MSc at NMU identifying how reliant King Penguins from Marion Island are on productive foraging waters associated with the Antarctic Polar Front.
  • Makabongwe Sigqala returned to over-winter on Marion Island while continuing part-time with his MSc on the diet of penguins.
  • Maëlle Connan led on a paper on resource partitioning among sub-Antarctic seabirds based on analysis of stable isotopes in egg shells and egg membranes.
  • Former PhD student Genevieve Jones published a paper on hybridisation between mollymawk albatrosses on Marion Island.
  • The team contributed to six papers on seabird population structure and evolution: four papers on penguins, one on White-chinned Petrels Procellaria aequinoctialis and one on prion evolution.
  • We also contributed to two global conservation reviews, one on petrels and the other on penguins.
  •  Several papers on seabird health also were published, including the first survey of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in Southern Ocean seabirds.
  • Pierre Pistorius spent four months sabbatical working on tracking data from Marion Island at Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand, hosted by Phil Seddon, a former Fitz post-doc.

Highlights

  • Ditiro Moloto was awarded her MSc for her study of structural adaptations for underwater flight among the albatrosses and petrels (Procellariiformes).
  • Pierre Pistorius and Tegan Carpenter-Kling attended the 10th international Penguin conference in New Zealand where they presented the results from Marion Island penguin research.
  • 25 papers on Southern Ocean seabirds and their conservation were published in 2019.

Key co-supporters
Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP); ACE Foundation; CNRS; DST-NRF CoE grant; European Union; RSPB; South African National Antarctic Programme; WWF Australia.

Research team
Prof. Peter Ryan (FIAO, UCT)
Prof. Pierre Pistorius (NMU)
Prof. Res Altwegg (SEEC, UCT)
Dr Maelle Connan (NMU)
Dr Theresa Burg (U. Lethbridge, Canada)
Dr Sarah Convese (Oregon)
Dr Richard Cuthbert (formerly at RSPB)
Dr Jacob González-Solis (U. Barcelona)
Dr Akiko Kato (CNRS, Chize)
Dr Azwianewi Makhado (Oceans & Coasts, DEA)
Dr Richard Phillips (British Antarctic Survey)
Dr Rob Ronconi (Canadian Wildlife Service)
Dr Yan Ropert-Coudert (CNRS, Chize)
Dr Antje Steinfurth (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Ross Wanless (FIAO, UCT and BLSA)
Dr Henri Wiemerskirch (CNRS, Chize)
Prof. Rory Wilson (Swansea U.

Students: Tegan Carpenter-Kling (PhD, NMU); Stefan Schoombie (PhD, UCT); Kim Stevens (PhD, UCT); Ditiro Moloto (MSc, UCT); Alexis Osborne (MSc, UCT); Makabongwe Sigqala (MSc, NMU); Lilli Ruiters (MSc, NMU).