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Spatial and reproductive ecology of Brown Pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico

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Project log

Patrick G Jodice
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Several trace metals and metalloids have been introduced into aquatic ecosystems due to anthropogenic activities. Some of these elements like mercury (in the form of methylmercury) are easily transferred from one trophic level to another and can accumulate to toxic quantities in organisms at the top of aquatic food webs. For this reason, seabirds like the eastern brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis) are susceptible to heavy metal and metalloid toxicity and may warrant periodic monitoring. Mercury, cadmium, copper, arsenic, and selenium were measured in the feathers of adult brown pelicans and chicks in several breeding colonies (Shamrock Island, Chester Island, Marker 52 Island, North Deer Island, Raccoon Island, Felicity Island, Gaillard Island, Audubon Island, and Ten Palms Island) in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Overall, most chicks and adults examined had mercury levels in feathers that were below the concentration range in which birds show symptoms of mercury toxicity. However, chicks in the Audubon Island and Ten Palms Island colonies displayed mercury levels that were 3 times higher than values observed in 5 other colonies. In addition, several adults and chicks displayed selenium concentrations that are above what is considered safe for birds. Cadmium quantities in feathers were below levels that trigger toxicity in birds. Similarly, arsenic measurements were at quantities below the average of what has been reported for birds living in contaminated sites. Finally, we identify pelican breeding colonies that may warrant monitoring due to elevated levels of contaminants.
Patrick G Jodice
added 2 research items
Located at the shortest overland route between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, Mexico's Tehuantepec Isthmus is a globally important migratory corridor for many terrestrial bird species. The Pacific coast of the Isthmus also contains a significant wetland complex that supports large multi-species aggregations of non-breeding waterbirds during the boreal winter. In recent years, extensive wind energy development has occurred in the plains bordering these wetlands, directly along the migratory flyway. Using recent studies of movement patterns of three marine-associated bird species—reddish egrets (Egretta rufescens), brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), and red knots (Calidris canutus)—from the northern Gulf of Mexico, we assess the use of the isthmus as a migratory corridor. Our data provide evidence that marine birds from the Gulf region regularly overwinter along the Pacific coast of Mexico and use the isthmus as a migratory corridor, creating the potential for interaction with terrestrial wind farms during non-breeding. This study is the first to describe migration by marine-associated bird species between the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific coast. These data contribute new information toward ongoing efforts to understand the complex migration patterns of mobile marine species, with the goal of informing integrated conservation efforts for species whose year-round habitat needs cross ecoregional and geopolitical boundaries.
Aim Conservation of highly mobile species often requires identifying locations or time periods of elevated vulnerability. Since both extrinsic habitat conditions and intrinsic behavioural and energetic requirements contribute to habitat use at the landscape scale, identifying spatial or temporal foci for conservation intervention requires understanding how habitat needs and distributions vary across the annual cycle. Nearshore marine birds inhabit highly dynamic systems and have widely varying habitat needs among breeding, moult and non‐breeding seasons, making them a useful case study for testing the relative contributions of individual resource requirements and environmental conditions in driving annual variation in distribution patterns. Location Northern Gulf of Mexico (USA). Methods We tracked Brown Pelicans using bird‐borne GPS transmitters and used a combination of Hidden Markov Models and multivariate selectivity analysis to compare the characteristics of preferred resident habitats used throughout the annual cycle. Results Habitat selection was driven by dynamic oceanographic variables during all stages of the annual cycle. Key habitat characteristics varied between seasons, with particularly strong selection on high productivity, low temperature and low salinity during the breeding and post‐breeding moult periods. The post‐breeding moult also corresponded to a time of limited availability of preferred habitats, resulting in extensive overlap between breeding populations from different administrative planning areas. Main conclusions By incorporating seasonal variation in individual behaviour and resource requirements into our habitat models, we were able to identify the post‐breeding moult as a period of high selectivity and restricted availability of preferred habitats for Brown Pelicans. Locations meeting preferred habitat criteria during the post‐breeding period, particularly estuarine habitats with high productivity and low salinity, would therefore be high‐value targets for management and restoration. Our analysis demonstrates the importance of accounting for both intrinsic and extrinsic temporal variation in evaluating habitat selection.
Juliet S. Lamb
added a research item
Understanding how both quality and quantity of prey affect the population dynamics of marine predators is a crucial step toward predicting the effects of environmental perturbations on population-level processes. The Junk Food Hypothesis, which posits that energetic content of prey species may influence reproductive capacity of marine top predators regardless of prey availability, has been proposed as a mechanism by which changes in prey populations could affect predator populations in high latitude systems; however, support for this hypothesis has been inconsistent across studies, and further data are needed to elucidate variation in the relative importance of prey quantity and quality, both among predator species and across ecological systems. We tested the relative importance of prey quantity and quality to nestling survival in the eastern brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis across 9 breeding colonies in the northern Gulf of Mexico that varied in underlying availability of a key prey resource, the Gulf menhaden Brevoortia patronus. Both feeding frequency and meal mass were significantly correlated to energy provisioning rates and nestling survival, while energy density of meals had little effect on either metric. Compared to previous results from cold-water systems, we found lower and less variable energy densities (4.4 kJ g⁻¹, vs. 5.2 to 6.5 kJ g⁻¹ in other studies) and lipid content (9% dry mass, vs. 16 to 23% in other studies) of common prey items. While Gulf menhaden was the most common prey species at all colonies, the proportion of menhaden fed to nestlings varied and was not strongly correlated to fledging success. We conclude that quantity rather than quality of prey, particularly small schooling fish, is the main driver of brown pelican reproductive success in this system, and that environmental perturbations affecting biomass, distribution, and abundance of forage fish could substantially affect brown pelican reproductive success.
Juliet S. Lamb
added 3 research items
The effects of environmental change on vast, inaccessible marine ecosystems are often difficult to measure and detect. As accessible and highly visible apex predators in marine environments, seabirds are often selected as indicators for studying the effects of disturbance at lower trophic levels, although data are restricted both temporally and spatially. For example, studies of seabirds have historically been limited to the breeding season, with limited data being available throughout the remainder of the annual cycle. Additionally, understanding of habitat associations and behavior of seabirds in the marine environment comes primarily from pelagic seabirds, whose habitat year-round is generally in remote marine areas removed from anthropogenic development, while similar data from nearshore seabirds are less common. Such data gaps limit our understanding or life-history traits among seabirds, one of the most imperiled avian groups globally, and subsequently our ability to inform conservation and marine spatial planning. My goal was to examine ecological relationships of diet, breeding biology, and movement patterns of a nearshore tropical seabird, the Eastern brown pelican, in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the most anthropogenically developed marine ecosystems worldwide. While my results supported previous findings that nutritional conditions are a key driver of seabird reproductive success and recruitment, they differ in suggesting that prey availability and delivery rates are more important to reproductive rates than energetic value of prey species. Since direct measurement of reproductive rates is time-consuming and difficult to collect, I also tested an integrated measure of nutritional stress during development, feather corticosterone, as a predictor of nestling survival and fledging rates. Corticosterone predicted 94% of inter-colony variation in fledging success and was also correlated with post-fledging survival, making it a powerful tool for measuring demographic patterns in this species. To measure adult movement patterns, I deployed bird-borne biologgers to collect highly accurate spatial data from pelicans throughout the annual cycle. I found that individual breeders quickly returned to normal behavior after capture and tagging. GPS tracking also indicated that pelicans were highly mobile, ranging over large areas during the breeding season and migrating up to 2,500 kilometers during non-breeding. Movement patterns were influenced by local conspecific competition during both breeding and migration, such that birds from larger colonies moved longer distances year-round compared to those from smaller colonies. I also found a high degree of spatial, temporal, and individual variation in exposure to surface pollutants across the population. I recorded a high degree of individual variation in movement, which interacted with pollutant exposure to create a complex and varying distribution of risk throughout the northern Gulf metapopulation of brown pelicans. Understanding the factors driving this variation will inform future monitoring, conservation, and mitigation efforts for this species.
Density-dependent competition for food resources influences both foraging ecology and reproduction in a variety of animals. The relationship between colony size, local prey depletion, and reproductive output in colonial central-place foragers has been extensively studied in seabirds; however, most studies have focused on effects of intraspecific competition during the breeding season, while little is known about whether density-dependent resource depletion influences individual migratory behavior outside the breeding season. Using breeding colony size as a surrogate for intraspecific resource competition, we tested for effects of colony size on breeding home range, nestling health, and migratory patterns of a nearshore colonial seabird, the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), originating from seven breeding colonies of varying sizes in the subtropical northern Gulf of Mexico. We found evidence for density-dependent effects on foraging behavior during the breeding season, as individual foraging areas increased linearly with the number of breeding pairs per colony. Contrary to our predictions, however, nestlings from more numerous colonies with larger foraging ranges did not experience either decreased condition or increased stress. During nonbreeding, individuals from larger colonies were more likely to migrate, and traveled longer distances, than individuals from smaller colonies, indicating that the influence of density-dependent effects on distribution persists into the nonbreeding period. We also found significant effects of individual physical condition, particularly body size, on migratory behavior, which in combination with colony size suggesting that dominant individuals remain closer to breeding sites during winter. We conclude that density-dependent competition may be an important driver of both the extent of foraging ranges and the degree of migration exhibited by brown pelicans. However, the effects of density-dependent competition on breeding success and population regulation remain uncertain in this system.
Although the use of bird-borne data loggers has become widespread in avian field research, the effects of capture and transmitter attachment on behavior and demographic rates are not often measured. Tag- and capture-induced effects on individual behavior, survival and reproduction may limit extrapolation of transmitter data to wider populations. However, measuring individual responses to capture and tagging is a necessary step in developing research techniques that minimize negative effects. We measured the short-term behavioral effects of handling and GPS transmitter attachment on Brown Pelicans under both captive and field conditions, and followed tagged individuals through a full breeding season to assess whether capture and transmitter attachment increased rates of nest abandonment or breeding failure. We observed slight increases in preening among tagged individuals 0–2 h after capture relative to controls that had not been captured or tagged, with a corresponding reduction in time spent resting. One to three days post-capture, nesting behavior of tagged pelicans resembled that of neighbors that had not been captured or tagged. Eighty-eight percent of tagged breeders remained at the same nest location for more than 48 h after capture, attending nests and chicks for an average of 49 days, and 51% were assumed to successfully fledge young. Breeding success was driven primarily by variation in location; however, sex and handling time also influenced the probability of successful breeding in tagged pelicans, suggesting that individual characteristics and the capture process itself can confound the effects of capture and transmitter attachment. We conclude that pelicans fitted with GPS transmitters exhibit comparable behaviors to untagged individuals within a day of capture and that GPS tracking is a viable technique for studying behavior and demography in this species. We also identify measures to minimize post-capture nest abandonment rates in tracking studies, including minimizing handling time and covering nests during processing.
Yvan Satgé
added a research item
The effects of acute environmental stressors on reproduction in wildlife are often difficult to measure because of the labour and disturbance involved in collecting accurate reproductive data. Stress hormones represent a promising option for assessing the effects of environmental perturbations on altricial young; however, it is necessary first to establish how stress levels are affected by environmental conditions during development and whether elevated stress results in reduced survival and recruitment rates. In birds, the stress hormone corticosterone is deposited in feathers during the entire period of feather growth, making it an integrated measure of background stress levels during development. We tested the utility of feather corticosterone levels in 3-to 4-week-old nestling brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) for predicting survival rates at both the individual and colony levels. We also assessed the relationship of feather corticosterone to nestling body condition and rates of energy delivery to nestlings. Chicks with higher body condition and lower corticosterone levels were more likely to fledge and to be resighted after fledging, whereas those with lower body condition and higher cortico-sterone levels were less likely to fledge or be resighted after fledging. Feather corticosterone was also associated with intracolony differences in survival between ground and elevated nest sites. Colony-wide, mean feather corticosterone predicted nest productivity, chick survival and post-fledging dispersal more effectively than did body condition, although these relationships were strongest before fledglings dispersed away from the colony. Both reproductive success and nestling corticosterone were strongly related to nutritional conditions, particularly meal delivery rates. We conclude that feather corticosterone is a powerful predictor of reproductive success and could provide a useful metric for rapidly assessing the effects of changes in environmental conditions, provided pre-existing baseline variation is monitored and understood.