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Keywords:

  • Ascension Island;
  • Onychoprion fuscata;
  • morphometric;
  • PCR;
  • sexing;
  • seabird colony

Abstract

Sooty terns Onychoprion fuscata are one of the most abundant seabirds but breeding populations in many colonies have diminished. Rapid sexing of sooty terns in the field could be crucial in advancing our understanding of their reproductive biology, and in promoting conservation. However, sooty tern males and females are identical in their plumage and, thus, difficult to sex in the field. Morphometric measurements were taken from 63 adult sooty terns breeding on Ascension Island in 2005. A small blood sample was taken from the brachial vein to determine the bird's sex using standard PCR-based molecular techniques. Males were consistently larger in all morphometric measurements than females but considerable overlap between the sexes resulted in no single measurement being a useful discriminator of sex. A principal components analysis on a correlation matrix of seven morphometric measurements indicated that the first principal component (PC1) was a good ‘body size’ axis explaining 40.5% of the variance in the original matrix. The suite of head measurements all had high character loadings on PC1 and were, therefore, good indicators of the body size of sooty terns. Tarsus length and wing length were less reliable predictors of sex. Discriminant analyses revealed that a disciminant function incorporating head measurements and wing length allowed 77.8% of sooty terns to be sexed correctly based upon morphometric measurements alone. Further morphometric approaches to sexing should be explored with sooty terns captured in subsequent years.