MEPS 329:267-279 (2007)  -  doi:10.3354/meps329267

Ocean climate and prey availability affect the trophic level and reproductive success of the marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird

Benjamin H. Becker1,2,*, M. Zachariah Peery1,3, Steven R. Beissinger1

1Division of Ecosystem Sciences, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, 137 Mulford Hall No. 3114, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720-3114, USA
2Present address: Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center, Point Reyes National Seashore, Point Reyes Station, California 94956, USA
3Present address: 7544 Sandholdt Road, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Moss Landing, California 95039, USA

ABSTRACT: We investigated relationships between oceanographic processes, prey availability, diet and the reproductive success of the marbled murrelet Brachyramphus marmoratus (Alcidae), a federally threatened seabird. We predicted that cooler ocean conditions (which increase primary productivity in this eastern boundary upwelling system) should result in heightened prey availability and hence higher reproductive success for the murrelet. We also expected that murrelet diets should reflect those potential prey species that are most abundant during any given season or year. Oceanographic conditions were considered at 2 spatial scales: synoptic (Northern Oscillation Index, NOI; Pacific Decadal Oscillation Index, PDO; the North Pacific Index, NPI), and local (upwelling index, UI; sea surface temperature, SST; strength of the spring turnover). To infer seasonal and annual variation in murrelet diets in central California, we used stable isotope analyses of δ15N and δ13C in murrelet feathers and prey tissues during the pre- and postbreeding seasons of 1998 to 2002. Isotopic signatures of 10 species of potential prey clustered into 3 distinct groups (low, mid and high trophic level seabird prey). During 1999 to 2001, when more krill (low trophic level prey) were available, murrelet δ15N and trophic level were lower prior to breeding than after breeding, whereas pre- and postbreeding diets were similar during 1998 and 2002 when fewer krill were available. δ13C was always lower in prebreeding than postbreeding diets, which tracked availability of 13C enriched juvenile rockfish and market squid. Diet did not differ by sex for either isotope. Murrelet productivity (juvenile:adult ratios) was positively correlated with both rockfish and krill abundance. PDO, NOI, UI, spring turnover strength and NPI indices were unrelated to murrelet productivity and to prey abundances. Murrelet productivity was also positively related to the proportion of mid trophic level prey in postbreeding diets, and thus negatively related to the proportion of low and high trophic level prey consumed. Furthermore, productivity was markedly higher following the apparent 1998 to 1999 PDO regime shift to cooler conditions. These data suggest that cooler local temperatures support increased availability of krill and juvenile rockfish to murrelets, and that this improves murrelet reproductive success.


KEY WORDS: Stable isotope · Marbled murrelet · Seabird · Diet shift · Brachyramphus marmoratus


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