Skip to main content
Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2020

Population change in breeding boreal waterbirds in a 25-year perspective: What characterises winners and losers?

Elmberg, Johan; Arzel, Céline; Gunnarsson, Gunnar; Holopainen, Sari; Nummi, Petri; Pöysä, Hannu; Sjöberg, Kjell


Understanding drivers of variation and trends in biodiversity change is a general scientific challenge, but also crucial for conservation and management. Previous research shows that patterns of increase and decrease are not always consistent at different spatial scales, calling for approaches combining the latter. We here explore the idea that functional traits of species may help explaining divergent population trends. Complementing a previous community level study, we here analyse data about breeding waterbirds on 58 wetlands in boreal Fennoscandia, covering gradients in latitude as well as trophic status. We used linear mixed models to address how change in local abundance over 25 years in 25 waterbird species are associated with life history traits, diet, distribution, breeding phenology, and habitat affinity. Mean abundance increased in 10 species from 1990/1991 to 2016, whereas it decreased in 15 species. Local population increases were associated with species that are early breeders and have small clutches, an affinity for luxurious wetlands, an herbivorous diet, and a wide breeding range rather than a southern distribution. Local decreases, by contrast, were associated with species having large clutches and invertivorous diet, as well as being late breeders and less confined to luxurious wetlands. The three species occurring on the highest number of wetlands all decreased in mean abundance. The fact that early breeders have done better than late fits well with previous research about adaptability to climate change, that is, response to earlier springs. We found only limited support for the idea that life history traits are good predictors of wetland level population change. Instead, diet turned out to be a strong candidate for an important driver of population change, as supported by a general decrease of invertivores and a concomitant increase of large herbivores. In a wider perspective, future research needs to address whether population growth of large-bodied aquatic herbivores affects abundance of co-occurring invertivorous species, and if so, if this is due to habitat alteration, or to interference or exploitative competition.


breeding phenology; diet; distribution; life history; waterfowl

Published in

Freshwater Biology
2020, volume: 65, number: 2, pages: 167-177

Authors' information

Elmberg, Johan
Kristianstad University
Arzel, Céline
University of Turku
Gunnarsson, Gunnar
Kristianstad University
Holopainen, Sari
University of Helsinki
Nummi, Petri
University of Helsinki
Pöysä, Hannu
Natural Resources Institute Finland (LUKE)
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies

Sustainable Development Goals

SDG15 Life on land
SDG13 Climate action

UKÄ Subject classification


Publication Identifiers


URI (permanent link to this page)