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Keywords:

  • eelgrass;
  • energetics;
  • foraging;
  • habitat loss;
  • saltmarsh;
  • Zostera

Coastal seagrasses are declining at increasing rates worldwide, forcing herbivores previously reliant on these habitats to abandon them in search of alternative ways to fulfil their daily energy budgets. After two decades of declining seagrass abundance in Mariager Fjord, Denmark, the Svalbard breeding population of Light-bellied Brent Geese Branta bernicla hrota has experienced substantial changes in habitat use at this traditional autumn staging area. Declines in seagrasses have caused birds to depend increasingly on Sea Lettuce Ulva lactuca in recent years, and forced birds into terrestrial habitats such as saltmarsh and winter wheat. In contrast to those birds exploiting aquatic habitats, birds relying on these new habitats showed higher energy expenditure and failed to balance their energy budget. Eelgrass (Zostera) was energetically superior to other food resources, with marine Ulva being second best. Predicted body mass development under two different scenarios indicate that present habitat use resulted in a midwinter body mass around 122 g lower than just 20 years ago, equivalent to c. 9.4% of Brent Goose body weight. Even after controlling for inter-annual differences in thermoregulatory costs, the effect of changes in habitat use translated into a body mass reduction of c. 56 g, which could adversely affect survival and future reproduction. Flyway-wide declines in Zostera abundance and further reductions in traditional habitats due to climate change give cause to reassess projected population trends and consequent management implications for the East Atlantic flyway population of Light-bellied Brent Geese.