Intercolony movement of pre-breeding seabirds over oceanic scales: implications of cryptic age-classes for conservation and metapopulation dynamics




Demographic linkage between subpopulations plays a critical role in population processes. Metapopulation dynamics, however, remains one of the most poorly understood aspects of population biology. This is especially true for small, pelagic seabirds because their discrete subpopulations are located on offshore islands, separated by vast areas of open ocean, making monitoring logistically challenging. Seabird populations often contain large numbers of immature pre-breeders that may be important for subpopulation connectivity and demography, but are poorly studied. Here we provide evidence for intercolony movement of pre-breeding Leach's storm-petrels Oceanodroma leucorhoa among three colonies spanning the North Atlantic Ocean. We discuss their influence on metapopulation dynamics and the extinction risk of a subpopulation under threat from extreme predation.


North Atlantic Ocean Islands (Scotland, Canada & Iceland).


We use a novel application of Bayesian stable isotope mixing models to infer recent movement of pre-breeding birds between three major breeding populations in the North Atlantic. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope values from breeding birds (central place foragers) sampled at each colony were used as model sources and pre-breeding birds as model mixtures.


Of 134 pre-breeding Leach's storm-petrels sampled at three colonies across the North Atlantic, five had isotope mixing model estimates dissimilar (< 25%) to their colony of capture and were instead isotopically similar to another breeding region. Nineteen further pre-breeders had highly mixed signatures (< 50% for the colony of capture), indicating possible recent movement between colonies.

Main conclusions

Our findings provide evidence for interpopulation connectivity of pre-breeding Leach's storm-petrels among colonies spanning the North Atlantic. These results highlight the significance of cryptic young age-classes in metapopulation dynamics and the demographic processes. Moreover, they provide us with a better understanding of how one subpopulation remains extant, despite experiencing extreme predation rates.