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, and by invasive species on land. 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, commenced in the 1970s. John Cooper initiated a series of seabird study colonies in the early 1980s, but servicing these long-term studies through a succession of three-year research projects is challenging. During 2020, monitoring at Marion was undertaken by three collaborative projects with CoE team members at NMU (Pierre Pistorius and Maëlle Connan) and DEFF (Azwianewi Makhado). Monitoring at Gough Island has been taken over by the RSPB. This project overlaps with the ‘Island Conservation’ and ‘Moult and migration’ projects.

Activities in 2020

  • 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 returned from a third year on Marion Island in May 2020 to complete his PhD on fine-scale foraging behaviour of albatrosses and petrels. In addition to working through vast amounts of daily diary data for his PhD, he drafted a paper on the year-round dispersal and moult of Sooty Albatrosses Phoebetria fusca. He will submit his PhD in March 2021.
  • Tegan Carpenter-Kling published two papers from her PhD. The first, in Ecology and Evolution, dealt with the responses of four sympatric albatross species to environmental variability. The second, in Movement Ecology, provided a critical assessment of marine predator isoscapes in the southern Indian Ocean, based on tracking data from several seabirds breeding on Marion Island. 
  • Farisayi Dakwa made good progress with his MSc on the population ecology of sympatric Eudyptes penguins at the Prince Edward Islands. His first paper, on long-term variation in the diet of Macaroni E. chrysolophus and Eastern Rock-hopper Penguins E. filholi was accepted for publication in the African Journal of Marine Science.
  • Shamiso Banda started her MSc on behavioural plasticity in Sooty Albatrosses and Danielle Keys started a PhD on the interaction between foraging behaviour and demographic responses in Wandering Albatrosses Diomedea exulans.
  • Former student Chris Jones published the main paper from his MSc on the at-sea distribution of Broad-billed Pachyptila vittata and MacGillivray’s Prions P. macgillivrayi in Marine Biology. The paper also used time-on-water data to identify the key moult areas for these species, which undergo a short, intense wing moult shortly after they finish breeding.
  • Seabird tracking data collected over the last decade contributed to various papers attempting to identify key areas at sea for seabird conservation. The most high profile of these was a large synthesis lead by Mark Hindell and former NMU postdoc Ryan Reisinger in Nature. Other papers appeared in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Animal Conservation and Endangered Species Research.
  • Ryan Reisinger published the paper comparing the at-sea distribution and habitat use between the two sibling giant petrel species breeding at Marion Island in Royal Society Open Science.
  • Theresa Burg’s MSc student, Dlini Abeyrama, had a paper on the population genetics of yellow-nosed albatrosses accepted for publication in Conservation Genetics.
  • Pierre Pistorius co-authored a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA that analysed the genomes of all extant penguin species to infer the timing and location of their diversification. The study highlighted that penguins originated during the Miocene in New Zealand and Australia and not in Antarctica as previously thought.
  • Pierre Pistorius co-authored two papers on Gentoo Penguins Pygoscelis papua: one in Diversity and Distributions demonstrating genetic differences between populations across their range, and one in Molecular Biology and Evolution highlighting pathogen-induced immunogenetic selection.
  • Peter Ryan published a paper in Antarctic Science on Blue Petrel Halobaena caerulea moult, which reported a major moult area off West Antarctica discovered during the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition in 2016/17.
  • Post-doc Ben Dilley published an estimate of the population of Great-winged Petrels Pterodroma macroptera breeding on Marion Island in Ostrich. Two other papers on seabird breeding biology also were published.
  • Kim Stevens took a leave of absence from her PhD on the demography and at-sea movements of Grey-headed Albatrosses Thalassarche chrysostoma to lead the RSPB team on Gough Island from September 2020 to October 2021.
  • Lyle de Menezes has been continuing his MSc focussed on the trophic ecology and plastics loads in Salvin’s Prions and Blue Petrels at Marion Island. He is planning to hand in his MSc thesis in mid-2021.
  • At the start of 2020, Maëlle Connan and Ben Dilley conducted 2.5-months fieldwork on burrowing petrels at Kerguelen thanks to a collaboration with French colleagues Christophe Barbraud and Yves Cherel.


  • Twenty papers on Southern Ocean seabirds and their conservation were published in 2020.
  • Tegan Carpenter-Kling completed her PhD and was appointed as a seabird researcher for BirdLife South Africa.
  • Maëlle Connan and Peter Ryan were awarded one of only three island-based research grants through the South African National Antarctic Programme for 2021-2023. The project will focus on avian scavengers at Marion Island to establish robust baselines prior to the mouse eradication.

Key co-supporters

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

Research team 2020

Prof. Peter Ryan (FIAO, UCT)
Prof. Pierre Pistorius (NMU)
Prof. Res Altwegg (SEEC, UCT)
Dr Maelle Connan (NMU)
Dr Florian Orgeret (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); Danielle Keys (PhD, NMU); Stefan Schoombie (PhD, UCT); Kim Stevens (PhD, UCT); Shamiso Banda (MSc, NMU); Farisayi Dakwa (MSc, UCT); Lyle de Menezes (MSc, NMU); Lilli Ruiters (MSc, NMU).