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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2021

Trends in seabird breeding populations across the Great Barrier Reef

Woodworth, Bradley K.; Fuller, Richard A.; Hemson, Graham; McDougall, Andrew; Congdon, Bradley C.; Low, Matthew


The Great Barrier Reef is an iconic ecosystem, known globally for its rich marine biodiversity that includes many thousands of tropical breeding seabirds. Despite indications of localized declines in some seabird species from as early as the mid-1990s, trends in seabird populations across the reef have never been quantified. With a long history of human impact and ongoing environmental change, seabirds are likely sentinels in this important ecosystem. Using 4 decades of monitoring data, we estimated site-specific trends for 9 seabird species from 32 islands and cays across the reef. Trends varied markedly among species and sites, but probable declines occurred at 45% of the 86 species-by-site combinations analyzed compared with increases at 14%. For 5 species, we combined site-specific trends into a multisite trend in scaled abundance, which revealed probable declines of Common Noddy (Anous stolidus), Sooty Tern (Onychoprion fuscatus), and Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra), but no long-term changes in the 2 most widely distributed species, Greater Crested Tern (Thalasseus bergii) and Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster). For Brown Booby, long-term stability largely resulted from increases at a single large colony on East Fairfax Island that offset declines at most other sites. Although growth of the Brown Booby population on East Fairfax points to the likely success of habitat restoration on the island, it also highlights a general vulnerability wherein large numbers of some species are concentrated at a small number of key sites. Identifying drivers of variation in population change across species and sites while ensuring long-term protection of key sites will be essential to securing the future of seabirds on the reef.


conservation; island biodiversity; management; marine birds; ornithology; population dynamics; UNESCO World Heritage Area

Published in

Conservation Biology
Publisher: WILEY

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