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Concept: Auk


One hundred and seventy-three years ago, the last two Great Auks, Pinguinusimpennis, ever reliably seen were killed. Their internal organs can be found in the collections of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, but the location of their skins has remained a mystery. In 1999, Great Auk expert Errol Fuller proposed a list of five potential candidate skins in museums around the world. Here we take a palaeogenomic approach to test which-if any-of Fuller’s candidate skins likely belong to either of the two birds. Using mitochondrial genomes from the five candidate birds (housed in museums in Bremen, Brussels, Kiel, Los Angeles, and Oldenburg) and the organs of the last two known individuals, we partially solve the mystery that has been on Great Auk scholars' minds for generations and make new suggestions as to the whereabouts of the still-missing skin from these two birds.

Concepts: Cell, Organelle, Bird, Skin, Penguin, Museum, Auk, Great Auk


Northern polar regions have warmed more than other parts of the globe potentially amplifying the effects of climate change on biological communities. Ice-free seasons are becoming longer in many areas, which has reduced the time available to polar bears (Ursus maritimus) to hunt for seals and hampered bears' ability to meet their energetic demands. In this study, we examined polar bears' use of an ancillary prey resource, eggs of colonial nesting birds, in relation to diminishing sea ice coverage in a low latitude region of the Canadian Arctic. Long-term monitoring reveals that bear incursions onto common eider (Somateria mollissima) and thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia) nesting colonies have increased greater than sevenfold since the 1980s and that there is an inverse correlation between ice season length and bear presence. In surveys encompassing more than 1000 km of coastline during years of record low ice coverage (2010-2012), we encountered bears or bear sign on 34% of eider colonies and estimated greater egg loss as a consequence of depredation by bears than by more customary nest predators, such as foxes and gulls. Our findings demonstrate how changes in abiotic conditions caused by climate change have altered predator-prey dynamics and are leading to cascading ecological impacts in Arctic ecosystems.

Concepts: Predation, Climate, Arctic Ocean, Pinniped, Bear, Polar bear, Auk, Sea ice


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide an opportunity to rapidly census wildlife in remote areas while removing some of the hazards. However, wildlife may respond negatively to the UAVs, thereby skewing counts. We surveyed four species of Arctic cliff-nesting seabirds (glaucous gull Larus hyperboreus, Iceland gull Larus glaucoides, common murre Uria aalge and thick-billed murre Uria lomvia) using a UAV and compared censusing techniques to ground photography. An average of 8.5% of murres flew off in response to the UAV, but >99% of those birds were non-breeders. We were unable to detect any impact of the UAV on breeding success of murres, except at a site where aerial predators were abundant and several birds lost their eggs to predators following UAV flights. Furthermore, we found little evidence for habituation by murres to the UAV. Most gulls flew off in response to the UAV, but returned to the nest within five minutes. Counts of gull nests and adults were similar between UAV and ground photography, however the UAV detected up to 52.4% more chicks because chicks were camouflaged and invisible to ground observers. UAVs provide a less hazardous and potentially more accurate method for surveying wildlife. We provide some simple recommendations for their use.

Concepts: Gull, Larus, Arctic birds, Auk, Uria, Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull


Flight is a key adaptive trait. Despite its advantages, flight has been lost in several groups of birds, notably among seabirds, where flightlessness has evolved independently in at least five lineages. One hypothesis for the loss of flight among seabirds is that animals moving between different media face tradeoffs between maximizing function in one medium relative to the other. In particular, biomechanical models of energy costs during flying and diving suggest that a wing designed for optimal diving performance should lead to enormous energy costs when flying in air. Costs of flying and diving have been measured in free-living animals that use their wings to fly or to propel their dives, but not both. Animals that both fly and dive might approach the functional boundary between flight and nonflight. We show that flight costs for thick-billed murres (Uria lomvia), which are wing-propelled divers, and pelagic cormorants (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) (foot-propelled divers), are the highest recorded for vertebrates. Dive costs are high for cormorants and low for murres, but the latter are still higher than for flightless wing-propelled diving birds (penguins). For murres, flight costs were higher than predicted from biomechanical modeling, and the oxygen consumption rate during dives decreased with depth at a faster rate than estimated biomechanical costs. These results strongly support the hypothesis that function constrains form in diving birds, and that optimizing wing shape and form for wing-propelled diving leads to such high flight costs that flying ceases to be an option in larger wing-propelled diving seabirds, including penguins.

Concepts: Bird, Seabird, Penguin, Cormorant, Wing, Auk, Bird flight, Pelagic Cormorant


Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) populations have experienced dramatic declines since the mid-19th century along the southern portion of the species range, leading citizen groups to petition the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the species as endangered in the contiguous US. While there remains no consensus on the mechanisms driving these trends, population decreases in the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem suggest climate-related factors, and in particular the indirect influence of sea-surface temperature on puffin prey. Here, we use three species distribution models (SDMs) to evaluate projected shifts in habitat suitable for Tufted Puffin nesting for the year 2050 under two future Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emission scenarios. Ensemble model results indicate warming marine and terrestrial temperatures play a key role in the loss of suitable Tufted Puffin nesting conditions in the California Current under both business-as-usual (RCP 8.5) and moderated (RCP 4.5) carbon emission scenarios, and in particular, that mean summer sea-surface temperatures greater than 15 °C are likely to make habitat unsuitable for breeding. Under both emission scenarios, ensemble model results suggest that more than 92% of currently suitable nesting habitat in the California Current is likely to become unsuitable. Moreover, the models suggest a net loss of greater than 21% of suitable nesting sites throughout the entire North American range of the Tufted Puffin, regardless of emission-reduction strategies. These model results highlight continued Tufted Puffin declines-particularly among southern breeding colonies-and indicate a significant risk of near-term extirpation in the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem.

Concepts: Auk, Puffin, Tufted Puffin


Detailed information acquired using tracking technology has the potential to provide accurate pictures of the types of movements and behaviors performed by animals. To date, such data have not been widely exploited to provide inferred information about the foraging habitat. We collected data using multiple sensors (GPS, time depth recorders, and accelerometers) from two species of diving seabirds, razorbills (Alca torda, N = 5, from Fair Isle, UK) and common guillemots (Uria aalge, N = 2 from Fair Isle and N = 2 from Colonsay, UK). We used a clustering algorithm to identify pursuit and catching events and the time spent pursuing and catching underwater, which we then used as indicators for inferring prey encounters throughout the water column and responses to changes in prey availability of the areas visited at two levels: individual dives and groups of dives. For each individual dive (N = 661 for guillemots, 6214 for razorbills), we modeled the number of pursuit and catching events, in relation to dive depth, duration, and type of dive performed (benthic vs. pelagic). For groups of dives (N = 58 for guillemots, 156 for razorbills), we modeled the total time spent pursuing and catching in relation to time spent underwater. Razorbills performed only pelagic dives, most likely exploiting prey available at shallow depths as indicated by the vertical distribution of pursuit and catching events. In contrast, guillemots were more flexible in their behavior, switching between benthic and pelagic dives. Capture attempt rates indicated that they were exploiting deep prey aggregations. The study highlights how novel analysis of movement data can give new insights into how animals exploit food patches, offering a unique opportunity to comprehend the behavioral ecology behind different movement patterns and understand how animals might respond to changes in prey distributions.

Concepts: Optimal foraging theory, Auk


Which factors shape animals' migration movements across large geographical scales, how different migratory strategies emerge between populations, and how these may affect population dynamics are central questions in the field of animal migration [1] that only large-scale studies of migration patterns across a species' range can answer [2]. To address these questions, we track the migration of 270 Atlantic puffins Fratercula arctica, a red-listed, declining seabird, across their entire breeding range. We investigate the role of demographic, geographical, and environmental variables in driving spatial and behavioral differences on an ocean-basin scale by measuring puffins' among-colony differences in migratory routes and day-to-day behavior (estimated with individual daily activity budgets and energy expenditure). We show that competition and local winter resource availability are important drivers of migratory movements, with birds from larger colonies or with poorer local winter conditions migrating further and visiting less-productive waters; this in turn led to differences in flight activity and energy expenditure. Other behavioral differences emerge with latitude, with foraging effort and energy expenditure increasing when birds winter further north in colder waters. Importantly, these ocean-wide migration patterns can ultimately be linked with breeding performance: colony productivity is negatively associated with wintering latitude, population size, and migration distance, which demonstrates the cost of competition and migration on future breeding and the link between non-breeding and breeding periods. Our results help us to understand the drivers of animal migration and have important implications for population dynamics and the conservation of migratory species.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Population ecology, Bird, Seabird, Auk, Puffin, Atlantic Puffin


Microplastics have been reported everywhere around the globe. With very limited human activities, the Arctic is distant from major sources of microplastics. However, microplastic ingestions have been found in several Arctic marine predators, confirming their presence in this region. Nonetheless, existing information for this area remains scarce, thus there is an urgent need to quantify the contamination of Arctic marine waters. In this context, we studied microplastic abundance and composition within the zooplankton community off East Greenland. For the same area, we concurrently evaluated microplastic contamination of little auks (Alle alle), an Arctic seabird feeding on zooplankton while diving between 0 and 50 m. The study took place off East Greenland in July 2005 and 2014, under strongly contrasted sea-ice conditions. Among all samples, 97.2% of the debris found were filaments. Despite the remoteness of our study area, microplastic abundances were comparable to those of other oceans, with 0.99 ± 0.62 m(-3) in the presence of sea-ice (2005), and 2.38 ± 1.11 m(-3) in the nearby absence of sea-ice (2014). Microplastic rise between 2005 and 2014 might be linked to an increase in plastic production worldwide or to lower sea-ice extents in 2014, as sea-ice can represent a sink for microplastic particles, which are subsequently released to the water column upon melting. Crucially, all birds had eaten plastic filaments, and they collected high levels of microplastics compared to background levels with 9.99 and 8.99 pieces per chick meal in 2005 and 2014, respectively. Importantly, we also demonstrated that little auks took more often light colored microplastics, rather than darker ones, strongly suggesting an active contamination with birds mistaking microplastics for their natural prey. Overall, our study stresses the great vulnerability of Arctic marine species to microplastic pollution in a warming Arctic, where sea-ice melting is expected to release vast volumes of trapped debris.

Concepts: Predation, Bird, Inuit, Arctic Ocean, Greenland, Arctic shrinkage, Auk, Little Auk


Population-level estimates of species' distributions can reveal fundamental ecological processes and facilitate conservation. However, these may be difficult to obtain for mobile species, especially colonial central-place foragers (CCPFs; e.g. bats, corvids, social insects), because it is often impractical to determine the provenance of individuals observed beyond breeding sites. Moreover, some CCPFs, especially in the marine realm (e.g. pinnipeds, turtles and seabirds) are difficult to observe because they range 10s to 10,000s km from their colonies. It is hypothesized that the distribution of CCPFs depends largely on habitat availability and intraspecific competition. Modeling these effects may therefore allow distributions to be estimated from samples of individual spatial usage. Such data can be obtained for an increasing number of species using tracking technology. However, techniques for estimating population-level distributions using the telemetry data are poorly developed. This is of concern because many marine CCPFs, such as seabirds, are threatened by anthropogenic activities. Here, we aim to estimate the distribution at sea of four seabird species, foraging from approximately 5500 breeding sites in Britain and Ireland. To do so, we GPS-tracked a sample of 230 European shags Phalacrocorax aristotelis, 464 black-legged kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla, 178 common murres Uria aalge and 281 razorbills Alca torda from 13, 20, 12 and 14 colonies respectively. Using Poisson point process habitat use models, we show that distribution at sea is dependent on: (i) density-dependent competition among sympatric conspecifics (all species) and parapatric conspecifics (kittiwakes and murres); (ii) habitat accessibility and coastal geometry, such that birds travel further from colonies with limited access to the sea; and (iii) regional habitat availability. Using these models, we predict space use by birds from unobserved colonies and thereby map the distribution at sea of each species at both the colony and regional level. Space use by all four species' British breeding populations is concentrated in the coastal waters of Scotland, highlighting the need for robust conservation measures in this area. The techniques we present are applicable to any CCPF. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Concepts: Bird, Seabird, Approximation, Estimation, All rights reserved, Cormorant, Farne Islands, Auk


Pair collaborative behavior may play an important role in avian reproduction. However, evidence for this mainly comes from certain ecological groups (e.g. passerines). We studied the coordination of parents in foraging and its effect on food provisioning rate and chick growth in a small seabird, the Dovekie (Little auk, Alle alle). The species exhibits a dual foraging strategy, where provisioning adults make foraging trips of short (mean ~2 h; to provide food for the chick) and long duration (mean ~ 13 h; mainly for adults self-maintenance, although the food is also brought to the chick). We expected that offspring would benefit if parents coordinate their foraging patterns: one making short trips in the time when the other performing the long one. We examined this hypothesis using Monte Carlo randomization tests on field data collected during observations of individually marked birds. We found that parents did indeed adjust provisioning, making their long and short trips in an alternating pattern with respect to each other. Furthermore, we found that a higher level of coordination is associated with a lower variability in the duration of inter-feeding intervals, although this does not affect chick growth. Nevertheless, our results provide compelling evidence on the coordinated behavior of breeding partners.

Concepts: Bird, Seabird, Monte Carlo, Collaboration, Monaco, Auk, Little Auk, Alcidae