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.

Fitztitute seabird research on Marion Island, conducted through the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP), has continued unbroken since the early 1980s, when a series of long-term study colonies were established by John Cooper. The current three-year research project is focused on understanding the threats facing sooty albatrosses Phoebetria spp., and investigating how large, long-lived seabirds tradeoff the costs of moult and breeding. However, an array of other topics also are studied. Most field work takes place at the Prince Edward Islands, Tristan da Cunha and Gough Islands, with some students spending protracted periods on islands as field assistants, whereas others are based in South Africa. This project overlaps with our island bird conservation project .

Activities in 2016

  • PhD student Dom Rollinson had two papers accepted for publication; one summarising the impacts of the South African large pelagic longline fishery on seabirds over the last decade, reporting changes since Samantha Petersen’s study published in 2008, and one on the diving ecology of Grey Petrels Procellaria cinerea, a bycatch species that might facilitate the killing of albatrosses by bringing bait to the surface. He completed his thesis in early 2017.
  • Dom also drafted a paper on the dispersal of White-chinned Petrels Procellaria aequinoctialis from Marion Island, based on 3-years of GLS tracking and GPS tracking of breeding adults. He found that this species, which is by far the most commonly killed species on longlines off South Africa, does not wander widely when not breeding. All birds from sub-Antarctic islands in the southwest Indian Ocean winter off southern Africa.
  • Former PhD student Mareile Techow’s work on the genetic structure of White-chinned Petrels showed that all age classes remain in the same ocean basins, and a final paper from her thesis reflecting this finding was published in Polar Research in 2016. A paper on genetic structure of Black-browed Albatrosses Thalassarche melanophris led by Theresa Burg was accepted for publication.
  • Former MSc student Stefan Schoombie published a paper from his dissertation showing that numbers of Sooty Albatrosses Phoebetria fusca breeding on Marion Island have increased since 2008, whereas Light-mantled Albatrosses P. palpebrata have decreased. This result accords with predictions of regional warming, and contrasts with the trends in these species observed from the late 1990s to mid 2000s. Stefan also has a paper in press reporting the at-sea dispersal of both sooty albatross species, which reports the dispersal of breeding adults for roughly 80% of the global population (Prince Edwards, Gough and Tristan da Cunha).
  • Stefan was based on Marion Island for a second year in 2015/16. In addition to the routine monitoring work, he deployed miniature video cameras that he developed on Wandering Albatrosses Diomedea exulans, and during the 2016 takeover period, deployed some of Rory Wilson’s ‘daily diary’ loggers. Stefan spent three weeks in Rory’s lab in Sept-Oct 2016 learning how to interpret the massive amounts of data generated by these devices. He plans to register for a PhD using video and accelerometer data to better understand seabird foraging strategies.
  • One of Richard Phillips’ PhD students, Tommy Clay, published a paper on the non-breeding dispersal of Grey-headed Albatrosses from South Georgia and Marion Island published in Scientific Reports. He found that despite dispersing widely, and often circling the Southern Ocean, birds from the two islands foraged in different areas. Also, failed breeders tended to forage in different areas, but there was little evidence of sexual segregation in this species.
  • Former field assistant Chris Jones (Gough Island 2014/15) made good progress with analysing movement patterns of the two prion Pachyptila species that breed on Gough Island based on GLS deployments and stable isotope analyses. Two other papers based on seabird tracking data were accepted for publication: one analysed movement patterns for eight species of Pterodroma petrels breeding in the Atlantic Ocean (Ramos et al. Divers. Distrib.) and one used multiple approaches to use seabirds to define marine protected areas (Krüger et al. Anim. Conserv.).
  • PhD student Otto Whitehead finally got stuck into writing up his PhD on the comparative foraging ecology of crested penguins Eudyptes spp. at the Prince Edward Islands (following numerous distractions, including three months working for National Geographic in the Galapagos). He had a second paper from his thesis accepted for publication in Marine Ecology Progress Series. He will complete his thesis in mid-2017.
  • PhD student Ben Dilley had a paper accepted on the population size of Blue Petrels Halobaena caerulea on Marion Island, and former PhD student Genevieve Jones had a paper accepted on the comparative breeding phenology of Wandering Albatrosses.
  • Ditiro Moloto, one of the original cohort of Limpopo students who came to the Fitz as an exchange student in 2014, registered for an MSc investigating the structural adaptations of flight feathers for flight underwater in procellariiform seabirds.
  • Former Marion Island field assistant Alexis Osborne completed his BSc honours degree at UCT, with a research project on the impact of breeding status on moult in Wandering Albatrosses. He presented his preliminary findings at the SANAP symposium in Pretoria in July 2016, and will register for an MSc taking this study further in 2017.
  • Res Altwegg’s PhD student, Gordon Botha, made steady progress in analysing patterns of survival and breeding propensity in Wandering Albatrosses at Marion Island.
  • Two papers reporting regional differences in levels of pollutants in seabirds were published arising from the collaboration with Jacob González-Solis. Becker et al. 2016 (Environ. Pollut.) considered mercury contamination in a suite of seabirds, and Roscales et al. 2016 (Environ. Res.) reported levels of persistent organic pollutants in giant petrels Macronectes spp.


  • Seven papers on Southern Ocean seabirds and their conservation were published in 2016, and a further 10 are in press in 2017.
  • Peter Ryan completed a popular book on the seabirds of southern Africa, which will be released in time for BirdLife South Africa’s Flock at Sea cruise in April 2017.
  • Peter was a member of a project led by Henri Weimerskirch (CNRS Chize) that was supported for the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition at the end of 2016. Peter was one of only two PIs who went on all three legs of the expedition.

Key co-sponsors

Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP); 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 (NMMU)
Dr Rob Crawford (Oceans & Coasts, DEA)
Dr Richard Cuthbert (RSPB)
Dr Jacob González-Solis (U. Barcelona)
Dr Akiko Kato (CNRS, Strasbourg)
Dr Azwianewi Makhado (Oceans & Coasts, DEA)
Dr Richard Phillips (British Antarctic Survey)
Dr Pierre Pistorius (NMMU)
Dr Yan Ropert-Coudert (CNRS, Strasbourg)
Dr Antje Steinfurth (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Ross Wanless (FIAO, UCT and BLSA)
Prof. Rory Wilson (Swansea U.)

Students: Gordon Botha (PhD, SEEC, UCT) Dominic Rollinson (PhD, UCT), Kim Stevens (PhD, UCT), Otto Whitehead (PhD, UCT), Ditiro Moloto (MSc, UCT),

Research assistants on Marion Island: Stefan Schoombie, Janine Versteeg (2015/16) Christiaan Brink, Kim Stevens (2016/17)