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Predator–prey interactions between the South Polar skua Catharacta maccormicki and Antarctic tern Sterna vittata


K. Weidinger, Dept of Zoology and Laboratory of Ornithology, Faculty of Science, Palacky Univ., Tr Svobody 26, CZ-771 46 Olomouc, Czech Republic. E-mail:


Antarctic terns have to co-exist in a limited space with their major nest predator, the skuas. We conducted artificial nest experiments to evaluate the roles of parental activity, nest location and nest and egg crypsis in this simple predator–prey system. Predation on artificial (inactive) nests was higher in traditional nesting sites than in sites previously not occupied by terns, which suggests that skuas memorized past tern breeding sites. Predation on artificial nests in inactive colonies was higher than in active (defended) colonies. Parental defense reduced predation in colonies to the level observed in artificial nests placed away from colonies. This suggests that communal defense can balance the costs of attracting predators to active colonies. Within colonies, predation was marginally higher on experimental eggs put in real nests than on bare ground. Although it seems that the presence of a nest is costly in terms of increased predation, reductions in nest size might be constrained by the need for protective nest structures and/or balanced by opposing selection on nest size. Predation did not differ markedly between artificial (quail) and real tern eggs. A simultaneous prey choice experiment showed that the observed predation rates reflected egg/nest detectability, rather than discrimination of egg types. In summary, nesting terns probably cannot avoid being detected, and they cannot defend their nest by attending them. Yet, by temporarily leaving the nest, they can defend it through communal predator mobbing, and at the same time, they can benefit from crypsis of unattended nest and eggs.