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Keywords:

  • bird migration;
  • climate change;
  • dark-bellied brent goose;
  • density dependence;
  • reproductive success

Summary

  1. The huge changes in population sizes of Arctic-nesting geese offer a great opportunity to study population limitation in migratory animals. In geese, population limitation seems to have shifted from wintering to summering grounds. There, in the Arctic, climate is rapidly changing, and this may impact reproductive performance, and perhaps population size of geese, both directly (e.g. by changes in snow melt) or indirectly (e.g. by changes in trophic interactions).
  2. Dark-bellied brent geese (Branta bernicla bernicla L.) increased 20-fold since the 1950s. Its reproduction fluctuates strongly in concert with the 3-year lemming cycle. An earlier analysis, covering the growth period until 1988, did not find evidence for density dependence, but thereafter the population levelled off and even decreased. The question is whether this is caused by changes in lemming cycles, population density or other factors like carry-over effects.
  3. Breeding success was derived from proportions of juveniles. We used an information-theoretical approach to investigate which environmental factors best explained the variation in breeding success over nearly 50 years (1960–2008). We subsequently combined GLM predictions of breeding success with published survival estimates to project the population trajectory since 1991 (year of maximum population size). In this way, we separated the effects of lemming abundance and population density on population development.
  4. Breeding success was mainly dependent on lemming abundance, the onset of spring at the breeding grounds, and the population size of brent goose. No evidence was found for carry-over effects (i.e. effects of conditions at main spring staging site). Negative density dependence was operating at a population size above c. 200 000 individuals, but the levelling off of the population could be explained by faltering lemming cycles alone.
  5. Lemmings have long been known to affect population productivity of Arctic-nesting migratory birds and, more recently, possibly population dynamics of resident bird species, but this is the first evidence for effects of lemming abundance on population size of a migratory bird species. Why lemming cycles are faltering in the last two decades is unclear, but this may be associated with changes in winter climate at Taimyr Peninsula (Siberia).