Pronounced long-term trends in year-round diet composition of the European shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis

TitlePronounced long-term trends in year-round diet composition of the European shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsHowells, RJ, Burthe, SJ, Green, JA, Harris, MP, Newell, MA, Butler, A, Wanless, S, Daunt, F
Date Published11/2018
ISBN Number1432-1793

Populations of marine top predators are exhibiting pronounced demographic changes due to alterations in prey availability and quality. Changes in diet composition is a key potential mechanism whereby alterations in prey availability can affect predator demography. Studies of long-term trends in diet have focused on the breeding season. However, long-term changes in non-breeding season diet is an important knowledge gap, since this is generally the most critical period of the year for the demography of marine top predators. In this study, we analysed 495,239 otoliths from 5888 regurgitated pellets collected throughout the annual cycle over three decades (1985–2014) from European shags Phalacrocorax aristotelis on the Isle of May, Scotland (56°11′N, 02°33′W). We identified dramatic reductions in the frequency of lesser sandeel Ammodytes marinus occurrence over the study, which was more pronounced during the non-breeding period (96% in 1988 to 45% in 2014), than the breeding period (91–67%). The relative numerical abundance of sandeel per pellet also reduced markedly (100–13% of all otoliths), with similar trends apparent during breeding and non-breeding periods. In contrast, the frequencies of Gadidae, Cottidae, Pleuronectidae and Gobiidae all increased, resulting in a doubling in annual prey richness from 6 prey types per year in 1988 to 12 in 2014. Our study demonstrates that the declining importance of the previously most prominent prey and marked increase in diet diversity is apparent throughout the annual cycle, suggesting that substantial temporal changes in prey populations have occurred, which may have important implications for seabird population dynamics.

Short TitleMarine Biology