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Environmental effects on foraging performance in Little penguins: a matter of phenology and short-term variability

Nicolas Joly*, Andre Chiaradia, Jean-Yves Georges, Claire Saraux

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Foraging provides an integrative view of the effects of environmental variability on marine predators, from direct effects through increased energetic costs at sea to indirect effects through modification of prey accessibility. Using a 19-year automated monitoring system of ~400 individuals (>45,000 foraging trips), we investigated short-term and interannual variability in foraging performance (trip duration and mass gain) of breeding little penguins (Eudyptula minor), nearshore seabirds living in a climate change hotspot. We found marked but variable seasonal patterns in foraging performance with clear optimum periods but no decreases in trip duration nor mass gain throughout the breeding season. Although foraging performance was less variable at the inter-annual scale, we highlighted three groups of low, average, and good annual foraging performance. Low foraging performance during post-guard was associated with significantly lower breeding success. To understand how the environment might explain such variability, we simultaneously studied the effect of variables that may affect penguin foraging directly by altering energy costs at sea (currents, waves, and tides) and indirectly by modifying prey availability (primary production and vertical stratification). Although foraging performance is often thought to mainly depend on prey accessibility, lower foraging performances was mostly associated with increased waves and currents and only secondarily with a decreased and shallower stratification. Finally, synchrony between penguin phenology and primary production cycles explained inter-annual foraging performance, highlighting the importance of seabird breeding phenology.