Warming seas could put seabirds out of sync with prey - study

Seabirds may struggle to find food for their chicks because they are unable to shift their breeding seasons as the climate warms, research suggests.

Experts warn that rising sea temperatures in the coming decades could create a mismatch between breeding periods and the times when prey is most plentiful.

They said their findings suggest that if prey species continue to shift their breeding seasons forward, it could further threaten the survival of vulnerable seabirds such as puffins and albatrosses.

A team from the University of Edinburgh, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the British Antarctic Survey studied data on the breeding patterns of 62 seabird species between 1952 and 2016, as sea surface temperatures rose sharply.

They assessed 145 bird populations at 60 locations across every continent and found that seabirds have not altered their breeding times in response to the rising temperatures.

Previous research has, however, shown that climate change has brought forward the point at which many prey species, such as squid, shrimp and small fish, reproduce.

The study found albatrosses are also at risk from climate change (John Stillwell/PA)
The study found albatrosses are also at risk from climate change (John Stillwell/PA)

Researchers say seabirds have much longer lifespans than their prey and do not reproduce until they are a few years old, meaning it takes them many more generations to adapt to change.

Study leader Katharine Keogan, a PhD student at the university's school of biological sciences, said: "Many plants and animals now breed earlier than in previous decades, so our finding that seabirds haven't responded to changing environments is really surprising."

Sue Lewis, of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: "This collaboration was a global team effort, bringing together many of the world's seabird scientists and the data they have spent many years collecting.

"Uniting these studies has allowed us to draw powerful conclusions about the climate response of one of the most vulnerable bird groups on the planet."

The study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change and received funding from the Natural Environment Research Council.

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