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Keywords:

  • Community variability;
  • environmental forcing;
  • extreme events;
  • positive correlation;
  • stability

Abstract

Environmental variability can destabilize communities by causing correlated interspecific fluctuations that weaken the portfolio effect, yet evidence of such a mechanism is rare in natural systems. Here, we ask whether the population dynamics of similar sympatric species of a seabird breeding community are synchronized, and if these species have similar exceptional responses to environmental variation. We used a 24-year time series of the breeding success and population growth rate of a marine top predator species group to assess the degree of synchrony between species demography. We then developed a novel method to examine the species group – all species combined – response to environmental variability, in particular, whether multiple species experience similar, pronounced fluctuations in their demography. Multiple species were positively correlated in breeding success and growth rate. Evidence of “exceptional” years was found, where the species group experienced pronounced fluctuations in their demography. The synchronous response of the species group was negatively correlated with winter sea surface temperature of the preceding year for both growth rate and breeding success. We present evidence for synchronous, exceptional responses of a species group that are driven by environmental variation. Such species covariation destabilizes communities by reducing the portfolio effect, and such exceptional responses may increase the risk of a state change in this community. Our understanding of the future responses to environmental change requires an increased focus on the short-term fluctuations in demography that are driven by extreme environmental variability.