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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 583:227-242 (2017)  -  DOI:

From days to decades: short- and long-term variation in environmental conditions affect offspring diet composition of a marine top predator

Richard J. Howells1,2,*, Sarah J. Burthe1, Jon A. Green2, Michael P. Harris1, Mark A. Newell1, Adam Butler3,
David G. Johns4, Edward J. Carnell1, Sarah Wanless1, Francis Daunt1

1Centre for Ecology & Hydrology Edinburgh, Bush Estate, Penicuik, Midlothian EH26 0QB, UK
2School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool, Liverpool L69 3GP, UK
3Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland, JCMB, The King’s Buildings, Edinburgh EH9 3FD, UK
4The Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, The Laboratory, Citadel Hill, Plymouth PL1 2PB, UK
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Long-term changes in climate are affecting the abundance, distribution and phenology of species across all trophic levels. Short-term climate variability is also having a profound impact on species and trophic interactions. Crucially, species will experience long- and short-term variation simultaneously, and both are predicted to change, yet studies tend to focus on only one of these temporal scales. Apex predators are sensitive to long-term climate-driven changes in prey populations and short-term effects of weather on prey availability, both of which could result in changes of diet. We investigated temporal trends and effects of long- and short-term environmental variability on chick diet composition in a North Sea population of European shags Phalacrocorax aristotelis between 1985 and 2014. The proportion of their principal prey, lesser sandeel Ammodytes marinus, declined from 0.99 (1985) to 0.51 (2014), and estimated sandeel size declined from 104.5 to 92.0 mm. Concurrently, diet diversification increased from 1.32 (1985) to 11.05 (2014) prey types yr-1, including members of the families Pholidae, Callionymidae and Gadidae. The relative proportion of adult to juvenile sandeel was greater following low sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the previous year. In contrast, the proportion of Pholidae and prey richness were higher following high SST in the previous year. Within a season, the proportion of sandeel in the diet was lower on days with higher wind speeds. Crucially, our results showed that diet diversification was linked to trends in SST. Thus, predicted changes in climate means and variability may have important implications for diet composition of European shags in the future, with potential consequences for population dynamics.

KEY WORDS: Bottom-up control · Climate variability · Weather · Wind · Phalacrocorax aristotelis · Seabird · Sandeel

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Cite this article as: Howells RJ, Burthe SJ, Green JA, Harris MP and others (2017) From days to decades: short- and long-term variation in environmental conditions affect offspring diet composition of a marine top predator. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 583:227-242.

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