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 2018

  • Former PhD student Dom Rollinson published a paper on the movements of White-chinned Petrels Procellaria aequinoctialis from Marion Island, showing that they remain in the African sector of the Southern Ocean year-round. This is important for understanding the impact of fisheries bycatch because this is the species most often killed on longlines in the region.
  • Former NMU PhD student Jonathan Handley published a paper on interactions between Gentoo Penguins and lobster krill at the Falkland Islands, using video cameras deployed on the penguins. Interestingly, the lobster krill defend themselves using their pincers and reduce their risk of being preyed upon by forming tight clusters. His results were widely reported in the popular media.
  • NMU post-doc Ryan Reisinger published a paper in Diversity and Distributions describing the at-sea habitats modelling of seabirds and seals at the Prince Edward Islands using all historical tracking data. This highlighted important areas in the Southern Indian Ocean for conservation-based marine spatial planning. The models developed during this study are now being used in a larger global project, the Retrospective Analysis of Antarctic Tracking Data (RAADT). 
  • Pierre Pistorius contributed to a paper in Nature Climate Change demonstrating the importance of climate change on the distribution of King Penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus. It predicts that warming ocean temperatures will drive King Penguin prey southwards with the Antarctic Polar Front, forcing adults to commute longer distances to provision their offspring. This increased energetic expenditure is expected to impact on reproductive output and lead to major changes in the distribution of this species. Results of this study featured in over 100 media outlets.
  • Peter Ryan contributed data to a meta-analysis published in Nature Climate Change showing that seabirds generally exhibit little change in breeding phenology in relation to climate change, suggesting that they are likely to be increasingly susceptible to mis-matches between the timing of breeding and peaks in prey availability. He also contributed to another meta-analysis of foraging ranges of seabirds from 10 families published in Marine Policy, which assessed whether there were common spatial characteristics that could be used for conservation planning.
  • Newi Makhado published the first account of the at-sea distribution and habitat preferences of Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses Thalassarche carteri breeding at Prince Edward Island. These birds were shown to concentrate their foraging along the Agulhas Bank, explaining their vulnerability as fisheries bycatch.
  • Two papers led by Henri Weimerskirch arising from the ACE cruise were published: one documented the massive decline in what in the 1980s was the largest King Penguin colony in the world on Île aux Cochons, and one reported long-term trends in albatross populations in the French sub-Antarctic territories.
  • Tegan Carpenter-Kling continued her PhD work on foraging ranges and diet of seabirds breeding at Marion Island. She spent three months working with Clive Trueman  on the isotope component of her study, and another three months in the Crozet archipelago, 1 000 km east of Marion Island, where she collected data on Gentoo Penguins Pygoscelis papua.
  • Stefan Schoombie continued his PhD on fine-scale foraging behaviour of albatrosses and petrels. He wrote a programme to estimate bank angles in flying seabirds from video footage from bird-borne cameras which allows us to determine how dynamic soaring birds such as albatrosses change their flight behaviour in relation to local wind conditions.
  • Kim Stevens continued with her PhD on the demography and at-sea movements of Grey-headed Albatrosses Thalassarche chrysostoma.
  • Ditiro Moloto, one of the original cohort of Limpopo students who came to the Fitz as an exchange student in 2014, completed writing up her MSc on the structural adaptations of flight feathers for flight underwater in procellariiform seabirds.
  • Alexis Osborne made good progress with his MSc on the impact of breeding status on moult in Wandering Albatrosses and giant petrels, but failed to complete it before leaving for Gough Island as a field assistant for the RSPB in September 2018.
  • Lilli Ruiters started an MSc at NMU on the foraging behaviour of King Penguins at Marion Island. This is the first study of their foraging behaviour during the early breeding season and important in terms of identifying how reliant King Penguins from Marion Island are on productive foraging waters associated with the Antarctic Polar Front.
  • PhD student Ben Dilley, although working mainly on landbirds at Nightingale Island, collected valuable data on the island’s seabirds, including population estimates and tracking data.
  • Chris Jones and Michelle Risi completed a year as field assistants on Marion Island in May 2018, then left for another year on Gough Island for the RSPB in September. They continue to write up numerous papers arising from their work on the islands, and Michelle is steadily working through the long-term study colony data for Northern Giant Petrels Macronectes halli on Marion Island..


  • Chris Jones was awarded his MSc for his study on the two prion species recently found breeding together on Gough Island.
  • Peter Ryan gave a plenary talk at the 29th  IOC in Vancouver on seabird conservation from a Southern Hemisphere perspective, drawing on work from this programme and the Benguela seabird programme.
  • Sixteen papers on Southern Ocean seabirds and their conservation were published in 2018.

Key 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)
Dr 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); Chris Jones (MSc, UCT); Ditiro Moloto (MSc, UCT); Alexis Osborne (MSc, UCT); Makabongwe Sigqala (MSc, NMU); Lilli Ruiters (MSc, NMU).