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. Some students spend protracted periods on islands as field assistants, whereas others are based in South Africa. 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. The three-year research project that focused on understanding the threats facing sooty albatrosses Phoebetria spp., and investigating how large, long-lived seabirds tradeoff the costs of moult and breeding, comes to an end in April 2018. Although there will be no dedicated Fitz seabird project in the coming three-year cycle, the long-term studies will be continued through three collaborative projects with CoE team members at Nelson Mandela University (Pierre Pistorius and Maelle Connan) and DEA (Azwianewi Makhado). This project overlaps with the island conservation project (see p. 43).

Activities in 2017

  • PhD students Dom Rollinson and Otto Whitehead both completed their theses and each published one paper during the year under review: Dom summarised bycatch in the South African tuna fishery over the last 8 years in the African Journal of Marine Science, and Otto reported where Macaroni Eudyptes chrysolophus and Southern Rockhopper Penguins E. chrysocome forage during the crucial pre-moult period in Marine Ecology Progress Series. Otto also accompanied renowned photographer Thomas Peschak to Marion Island in April-May 2017 and the island’s birds will feature prominently in an article in National Geographic in mid-2018.
  • Four other papers based on seabird tracking data were published: one on sooty albatrosses from Marion, Gough and Tristan (Schoombie et al. Emu), one on Atlantic Pterodroma petrels(Ramos et al. Diversity &. Distributions), and two using tracking data from a diversity of seabirds to define important areas for marine conservation (Krüger et al. Animal Conservation, Dias et al. Biological Conservation).
  • Stefan Schoombie registered for a PhD on fine-scale foraging behaviour of albatrosses and petrels, co-supervised by Rory Wilson and Yan Ropert-Coudert. He visited Marion Island during the relief voyage in April-May 2017, when he deployed miniature video cameras that he developed on Wandering Albatrosses Diomedea exulans, together with some of Rory’s ‘daily diary’ loggers. Additional loggers were sent to Gough Island for deployment later in the year. He also found time to assist Rob Ronconi write up satellite tracking data on Great Shearwaters Ardenna gravis from almost a decade ago (in press with Marine Biology) and analyse GPS tracks from this species collected more recently by Ben Dilley and Delia Davies.
  • Kim Stevens made steady progress towards her PhD on Grey-headed Albatrosses Thalassarche chrysostoma, aided by attending a population modelling course in Washington, DC and a visit to Sarah Converse’s lab in Oregon. She also prepared a draft paper on the at-sea dispersal of Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses T. chlororhynchos.
  • Despite going to Marion Island as a field assistant in April 2017, MSc student Chris Jones (Gough Island field assistant 2014/15) made good progress with writing up his MSc on the two sympatric species of prions Pachyptila breeding on Gough Island. His analysis of their movement and activity patterns based on GLS deployments confirms that the two species breed 3 months apart, with the annual cycle of Broad-billed Prions P. vittata two weeks earlier at Gough Island than at the Tristan group (where it is the sole breeding prion), possibly because of intra-specific competition.
  • Chris, accompanied on Marion by his wife, Michelle Risi, not only managed the standard workload, but also undertook a series of other projects, including clearing Santa Rosa Valley to assess the rate of albatross mortality caused by crashing on the rugged black lave flow, and counting the Brown Skua Chatharacta antarctica breeding population to assess whether the species’ decline from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s has continued over the last decade.
  • Ditiro Moloto, one of the original cohort of Limpopo students who came to the Fitz as an exchange student in 2014, completed the data capture phase for her MSc on the structural adaptations of flight feathers for flight underwater in procellariiform seabirds, and should submit her dissertation in early 2018.
  • Former Marion Island field assistant Alexis Osborne registered for an MSc on the impact of breeding status on moult in Wandering Albatrosses and giant petrels. He collected additional data for this project on the annual relief voyages to Marion and Gough Islands, and also went to SANAE as a field assistant for DEA.
  • Res Altwegg’s PhD student, Gordon Botha, took a leave of absence from his PhD on patterns of survival and breeding propensity in Wandering Albatrosses at Marion Island to deal with personal commitments.


  • Dominic Rollinson received a PhD for his work showing how mitigation measures continue to reduce bycatch in the long-line fishery targeting tunas and swordfish off South Africa, with the Asian fleet that has 100% observer coverage managing to catch at around the recommended target of 0.05 birds per 1000 hooks set.
  • Otto Whitehead received a PhD for his study of the comparative foraging ecology of Macaroni and Southern Rockhopper Penguins on Marion Island.
  • Peter Ryan was field leader of a project proposed by Henri Weimerskirch (CNRS) for the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) from Dec 2016 to Mar 2017. This has already resulted in one published and three in press papers, including one on the dispersal of drifting kelps across the Antarctic Polar Front in the prestigious journal Nature Climate Change.
  • Nine papers on Southern Ocean seabirds and their conservation were published in 2017, and a further seven are in press in 2018.
  • Peter Ryan’s popular book Seabirds of southern Africa, was published in March and launched aboard BirdLife South Africa’s Flock at Sea cruise in April 2017.
  • Key co-sponsors
  • 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. Res Altwegg (SEEC, UCT)
Dr Alex Bond (RSPB)
Dr Theresa Burg (U. Lethbridge, Canada)
Dr Maelle Connan (NMU)
Dr Sarah Convese (Oregon)
Dr Rob Crawford (Oceans & Coasts, DEA)
Dr Richard Cuthbert (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 Pierre Pistorius (NMU)
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: Gordon Botha (PhD, SEEC, UCT) Dominic Rollinson (PhD, UCT), Kim Stevens (PhD, UCT), Otto Whitehead (PhD, UCT), Chris Jones (MSc, UCT) Ditiro Moloto (MSc, UCT), Alexis Osborne (MSc, UCT).