Seabirds are among the most threatened groups of birds because they face challenges both at their breeding sites and at sea. Almost one-third of all seabirds are on the global Red List, and they comprise nearly half of all threatened birds in South Africa. The Fitz’s Seabird Research Programme assesses the severity of threats faced by seabirds, and attempts to provide practical management solutions to reduce these threats. Southern Ocean species are mainly threatened at sea by fishing mortality and climate change, and by invasive species on land. Monitoring seabirds provides a window into the health of the Southern Ocean.

Most field work takes place through the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP) at the Prince Edward Islands, Tristan da Cunha, Gough Islands and Antarctica. Fitztitute seabird research on Marion Island, the larger of the two Prince Edward Islands, commenced in the 1970s. John Cooper initiated a series of seabird study colonies in the early 1980s, but servicing these long-term studies through a succession of three-year research projects has become increasingly challenging. Maëlle Connan (NMU) and Peter Ryan were awarded a research grant through the South African National Antarctic Programme for 2021-2023. The project focuses on avian scavengers at Marion Island to establish robust baselines prior to the planned mouse eradication scheduled for the winter of 2025. During 2022, monitoring at Marion and Antarctica was undertaken by collaborating with CoE partners Azwianewi Makhado (DFFE) and Pierre Pistorius (NMU). Monitoring at Gough Island has been taken over by the RSPB.

Activities in 2022

  • 2022 was the second year of data collection for the SANAP project on avian scavengers at Marion Island led by Maëlle Connan and Peter Ryan. First results on the monthly attendance of Brown Skuas Catharacta antarctica, Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus and Lesser Sheathbills Chionis minor at the island were presented at the South African Marine Science Symposium in June 2022. This project is providing key data towards the planning of the proposed mouse eradication project on Marion Island (see Island Conservation).
  • Maëlle and Peter also are part of a new European BIODIVERSA project led by Dr Thierry Boulinier (CNRS, France) looking at the disease dynamics on sub-Antarctic islands.
  • Former PhD student Stefan Schoombie started a post-doc with Chris Oosthuizen at SEEC. One paper from his thesis, describing a new method of extracting seabird body angles from magnetometer data, is currently under review at Royal Society Open Science. Another paper on the effects of wind on fine-scale dynamic soaring behaviour of Wandering Albatrosses Diomedea exulans has been accepted for a special issue of Marine Ecology Progress Series
  • Stefan, Peter and Maëlle also contributed to a second paper submitted to this special issue, led by Janine Schoombie (PhD student in aeronautical engineering at UP) on the impact of wind on crash-landing mortality in Grey‐headed Albatrosses Thalassarche chrysostoma on Marion Island.
  • Former NMU post-doc Florian Orgeret published a global meta-analysis on the impacts of climate change on seabirds and marine mammals in Ecology Letters. The study highlighted important differences in the duration required to detect climate change impacts on these animals (global average of about two decades) and identified clear limitations in our current understanding of this field. For example, there are few studies on climate change impacts in the tropics and the physiological responses to climate is poorly reported.
  • Using historical tracking data collected from a large number of seabird and marine mammal species breeding at Marion Island, former post-doc Ryan Reisinger, in collaboration with researchers from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart, published a paper in Diversity and Distributions. Using several future climate change scenarios, Ryan modelled changes in suitable habitat for these marine predators. In most cases, a poleward shift in suitable habitat was evident, but these projected changes are species-specific. 
  • Chris Oosthuizen, a former NMU post-doc, published a paper in Ecosphere on the foraging behaviour of Adélie Penguins Pygoscelis adeliae at the Antarctic Peninsula. Unique to this study, Chris compared the foraging distribution of nonbreeding and breeding adults and highlighted important areas of potential competition with the krill fisheries.
  • Lyle de Menezes submitted his MSc in December 2022 on the trophic ecology of, and plastic loads in, petrels breeding at Marion Island.
  • Danielle Keys continued her PhD on the interaction between foraging behaviour and demographic responses in Wandering Albatrosses. She spent three weeks at the Chize (CNRS) lab in France developing modelling skills to apply to the very impressive 38-year mark-recapture dataset from Marion Island.
  • Tegan Walker started an MSc at NMU on the diet of Brown Skua at Marion Island and the link between diet and breeding parameters.
  • Theresa Burg’s MSc student, Dilini Abeyrama, explored the phylogeography of Phoebetria albatrosses using a suite of genetic markers. 
  • PhD student Kim Stevens returned from extended her leave of absence on Gough Island in September and will complete her PhD on the demography and at-sea movements of Grey-headed Albatrosses.

Highlights

  • 17 papers on Southern Ocean seabirds and their conservation were published in 2022.
  • Four papers explored the evolutionary history and phylogeography of seabirds: one in Journal of Biogeography on the diversification of Southern Ocean shags, one in Molecular Genetics and Genomics on the affinities of the newly-described prion on Gough Island, one in Nature Communications on the evolution of penguins over the last 60 million years, and a paper in Scientific Reports on Gentoo Penguins Pygoscelis papua, which suggests that adaptation to local conditions gave rise to their recent diversification into potentially four species.
  • Tracking data from Great Shearwaters Ardenna gravis were used in a paper in Frontiers in Marine Science to describe how this trans-Equatorial migrant maximises the use of favourable wind fields during its epic migrations, and how this behaviour develops with age.
  • Stefan Schoombie reported the non-breeding distribution of Sooty Albatrosses Phoebetria fusca, highlighting where they might be at-risk from fishery bycatch (Polar Biology), and Lisa Bentley compared the habitat choice of summer and winter-breeding Procellaria petrels (Ibis). 
  • Steffen Oppel led a paper on the demography of the critically endangered Tristan Albatross Diomedea dabbenena in the Journal of Animal Ecology, which demonstrated the impact of mouse predation on chicks at Gough Island. 
  • Mia Momberg (PhD, Pretoria) published a paper in Ibis which explored the role of wind and other physical factors on the choice of nest sites by Wandering Albatrosses on Marion Island.
  • We contributed to a paper in Scientific Reports on the structure of the inner ear in aquatic birds, and a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface on how flight power is determined by both wing beat frequency and amplitude.
  • Maëlle Connan led a paper on the rediscovery of Common Diving Petrels Pelecanoides urinatrix breeding at Marion Island after having been extirpated by cats in the mid-1960s, and Peter Ryan reported the first African record of this species in a paper that also summarised the at-sea distribution of Common and South Georgia Diving Petrels P. georgicus.
  • Shamiso Banda, who completed her MSc in 2021 on the foraging behaviour of Sooty Albatrosses breeding at Marion Island, was recruited by BirdLife South Africa to work on the new regional. Red Data Book for birds. 
  • Newi Makhado was vice-chair of the CCAMLR Scientific Committee and served on the Southern Ocean Observing System (SOOS) steering committee in the Southern Indian Ocean sector (SOIS) Regional Working Group. Newi led a paper and submitted a technical report on the online workshop on sub-Antarctic pelagic regionalisation for discussion during the CCAMLR scientific meeting. And together with colleagues from France and Australia, Newi is developing baseline spatial data for the eco-regionalisation of the Eastern Sub-Antarctic Region. 
  • Farisayi Dakwa graduated with an MSc on the population ecology of sympatric Eudyptes penguins at the Prince Edward Islands.

Key co-supporters
Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP); ACE Foundation; CNRS; DSI-NRF CoE grant; European Union; RSPB; South African National Antarctic Programme; WWF Australia; DFFE.

Research team 2022
Prof. Peter Ryan (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Maëlle Connan (NMU)
Dr Azwianewi Makhado (Oceans & Coasts, DFFE) 
Prof. Pierre Pistorius (NMU) 
Prof. Res Altwegg (SEEC, UCT) 
Dr Theresa Burg (U. Lethbridge, Canada) 
Dr Sarah Converse (Oregon) 
Dr Jacob González-Solis (U. Barcelona) 
Dr Steffen Oppel (RSPB)
Dr Richard Phillips (British Antarctic Survey) 
Dr Henri Wiemerskirch (CNRS, Chize) 
Prof. Rory Wilson (Swansea U.)

Students: Danielle Keys (PhD, NMU); Kim Stevens (PhD, UCT); Shamiso Banda (MSc, NMU); Farisayi Dakwa (MSc, UCT); Lyle de Menezes (MSc, NMU); Tegan Walker (MSc, NMU).

Field assistants: Thando Cebekhulu, Isabel Micklem, Eleanor Weideman (Marion 2021/22); Andile Mdluli, Tebogo Peta, Lucy Smyth, (Marion 2022/23)