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Concept: Gannets


Most seabirds are very noisy at their breeding colonies, when aggregated in high densities. Calls are used for individual recognition and also emitted during agonistic interactions. When at sea, many seabirds aggregate over patchily distributed resources and may benefit from foraging in groups. Because these aggregations are so common, it raises the question of whether seabirds use acoustic communication when foraging at sea? We deployed video-cameras with built in microphones on 36 Cape gannets (Morus capensis) during the breeding season of 2010-2011 at Bird Island (Algoa Bay, South Africa) to study their foraging behaviour and vocal activity at sea. Group formation was derived from the camera footage. During ~42 h, calls were recorded on 72 occasions from 16 birds. Vocalization exclusively took place in the presence of conspecifics, and mostly in feeding aggregations (81% of the vocalizations). From the observation of the behaviours of birds associated with the emission of calls, we suggest that the calls were emitted to avoid collisions between birds. Our observations show that at least some seabirds use acoustic communication when foraging at sea. These findings open up new perspectives for research on seabirds foraging ecology and their interactions at sea.

Concepts: Bird, Albatross, Seabird, Sound, Foraging, Gannet, Gannets, Sulidae


Australasian gannets (Morus serrator), like many other seabird species, locate pelagic prey from the air and perform rapid plunge dives for their capture. Prey are captured underwater either in the momentum (M) phase of the dive while descending through the water column, or the wing flapping (WF) phase while moving, using the wings for propulsion. Detection of prey from the air is clearly visually guided, but it remains unknown whether plunge diving birds also use vision in the underwater phase of the dive. Here we address the question of whether gannets are capable of visually accommodating in the transition from aerial to aquatic vision, and analyse underwater video footage for evidence that gannets use vision in the aquatic phases of hunting. Photokeratometry and infrared video photorefraction revealed that, immediately upon submergence of the head, gannet eyes accommodate and overcome the loss of greater than 45 D (dioptres) of corneal refractive power which occurs in the transition between air and water. Analyses of underwater video showed the highest prey capture rates during WF phase when gannets actively pursue individual fish, a behaviour that very likely involves visual guidance, following the transition after the plunge dive’s M phase. This is to our knowledge the first demonstration of the capacity for visual accommodation underwater in a plunge diving bird while capturing submerged prey detected from the air.

Concepts: Seabird, Lens, Scuba diving, Gannet, Australasian Gannet, Gannets, Sulidae, Booby


The study of ecological and behavioral processes has been revolutionized in the last two decades with the rapid development of biologging-science. Recently, using image-capturing devices, some pilot studies demonstrated the potential of understanding marine vertebrate movement patterns in relation to their proximate, as opposed to remote sensed environmental contexts. Here, using miniaturized video cameras and GPS tracking recorders simultaneously, we show for the first time that information on the immediate visual surroundings of a foraging seabird, the Cape gannet, is fundamental in understanding the origins of its movement patterns. We found that movement patterns were related to specific stimuli which were mostly other predators such as gannets, dolphins or fishing boats. Contrary to a widely accepted idea, our data suggest that foraging seabirds are not directly looking for prey. Instead, they search for indicators of the presence of prey, the latter being targeted at the very last moment and at a very small scale. We demonstrate that movement patterns of foraging seabirds can be heavily driven by processes unobservable with conventional methodology. Except perhaps for large scale processes, local-enhancement seems to be the only ruling mechanism; this has profounds implications for ecosystem-based management of marine areas.

Concepts: Predation, Ecology, Seabird, Gannet, Gannets, Sulidae, Booby, Seabirds


During the breeding season, seabirds adopt a central place foraging strategy and are restricted in their foraging range by the fasting ability of their partner/chick and the cost of commuting between the prey resources and the nest. Because of the spatial and temporal variability of marine ecosystems, individuals must adapt their behaviour to increase foraging success within these constraints. The at-sea movements, foraging behaviour and effort of the Australasian gannet (Morus serrator) was determined over three sequential breeding seasons of apparent differing prey abundance to investigate how the species adapts to inter-annual fluctuations in food availability. GPS and tri-axial accelerometer data loggers were used to compare the degree of annual variation within two stages of breeding (incubation and chick rearing) at a small gannet colony situated between two larger, nearby colonies. Interestingly, neither males nor females increased the total distance travelled or duration of foraging trip in any breeding stage (P>0.05 in all cases) despite apparent low prey availability. However, consistently within each breeding stage, mean vectorial dynamic body acceleration (an index of energy expenditure) was greater in years of poorer breeding success (increased by a factor of three to eight), suggesting birds were working harder within their range. Additionally, both males and females increased the proportion of a foraging trip spent foraging in a poorer year across both breeding stages. Individuals from this colony may be limited in their ability to extend their range in years of low prey availability due to competition from conspecifics in nearby colonies and, consequently, increase foraging effort within this restricted foraging area.

Concepts: Reproduction, Seabird, Breeding season, Optimal foraging theory, Foraging, Gannet, Australasian Gannet, Gannets


Knowledge of top predator foraging adaptability is imperative for predicting their biological response to environmental variability. While seabirds have developed highly specialised techniques to locate prey, little is known about intraspecific variation in foraging strategies with many studies deriving information from uniform oceanic environments. Australasian gannets (Morus serrator) typically forage in continental shelf regions on small schooling prey. The present study used GPS and video data loggers to compare habitat-specific foraging strategies at two sites of contrasting oceanographic regimes (deep water near the continental shelf edge, n=23; shallow inshore embayment, n=26), in south-eastern Australia. Individuals from the continental shelf site exhibited pelagic foraging behaviours typical of gannet species, using local enhancement to locate and feed on small schooling fish; in contrast only 50% of the individuals from the inshore site foraged offshore, displaying the typical pelagic foraging strategy. The remainder adopted a strategy of searching sand banks in shallow inshore waters in the absence of conspecifics and other predators for large, single prey items. Furthermore, of the individuals foraging inshore, 93% were male, indicating that the inshore strategy may be sex-specific. Large inter-colony differences in Australasian gannets suggest strong plasticity in foraging behaviours, essential for adapting to environmental change.

Concepts: Predation, Seabird, Coastal geography, Forage fish, Pelagic fish, Gannet, Australasian Gannet, Gannets


The Cape gannet Morus capensis, a large fish-eating seabird, is endemic to southern Africa. To study the energetics of nestling growth, we used the doubly labeled water technique to measure field metabolic rate (FMR) of nestlings, from hatchings to large partly feathered chicks (n = 17) at Malgas Island, Saldanha Bay, South Africa. At the same time, the growth rate of a large sample of chicks was measured (n = 338). These data, together with literature values on resting metabolic rate and body composition, were used to construct and partition the nestling energy budget. Nestling FMR (kJ d(-1)) increased with body mass according to FMR = 1.23m(0.923), r(2) = 0.944. Mass-specific FMR (FMRratio; kJ d(-1) g(-¾)) was independent of chick age (r(2) = 0.20, P > 0.05); mean mass-specific FMR was 4.11 ± 1.28, n = 17. Peak daily-metabolized energy (DME), which represents the maximum rate at which parents must supply their nestlings, occurred at age 71 d and was 2,141 kJ d(-1). Between the ages 51 and 92 d (43% of the fledging period), the DME of Cape gannet chicks was equal to or surpassed 90% of adult FMR at the nest. Energy demand during this period of peak DME represented 58% of the total metabolized energy, which was estimated at 150.1 MJ for an average chick during a 97-d period, from hatching to fledging. Sensitivity analysis of the energy budget indicated that the model was robust; the biggest source of error (±15%) was for the mass-FMR equation used in the model.

Concepts: Metabolism, Energy, Measurement, Seabird, Basal metabolic rate, Gannet, Gannets, Cape Gannet


During breeding, animal behaviour is particularly sensitive to environmental and food resource availability. Additionally, factors such as sex, body condition, and offspring developmental stage can influence behaviour. Amongst seabirds, behaviour is generally predictably affected by local foraging conditions and has therefore been suggested as a potentially useful proxy to indicate prey state. However, besides prey availability and distribution, a range of other variables also influence seabird behavior, and these need to be accounted for to increase the signal-to-noise ratio when assessing specific characteristics of the environment based on behavioural attributes. The aim of this study was to use continuous, fine-scale time-activity budget data from a pelagic seabird (Cape gannet, Morus capensis) to determine the influence of intrinsic (sex and body condition) and extrinsic (offspring and time) variables on parent behaviour during breeding. Foraging trip duration and chick provisioning rates were clearly sex-specific and associated with chick developmental stage. Females made fewer, longer foraging trips and spent less time at the nest during chick provisioning. These sex-specific differences became increasingly apparent with chick development. Additionally, parents in better body condition spent longer periods at their nests and those which returned later in the day had longer overall nest attendance bouts. Using recent technological advances, this study provides new insights into the foraging behaviour of breeding seabirds, particularly during the post-guarding phase. The biparental strategy of chick provisioning revealed in this study appears to be an example where the costs of egg development to the female are balanced by paternal-dominated chick provisioning particularly as the chick nears fledging.

Concepts: Psychology, Bird, Seabird, Behavior, Bird nest, Gannet, Gannets, Cape Gannet


Since 1969, northern gannet (Morus bassanus) eggs from Bonaventure Island, Québec, have been collected to monitor concentrations of contaminants. Levels of p,p'-DDE, which caused low breeding success of Bonaventure gannets in the 1960s, decreased by 99.4% from 1969 to 2009 (17.1-0.1 mg/kg ww), with concomitant improvement of hatching success. PCBs, most organochlorines and mercury also showed decreasing trends. Stable isotopes of carbon (δ(13)C) and nitrogen (δ(15)N) were measured to track the possible influence of diet changes on concentrations of contaminants over time. The confounding effect of the combustion of fossil fuels on baseline values of δ(13)C (the Suess effect) was taken into account. No temporal trends were observed in δ(13)C and δ(15)N values in gannet eggs. Hence trophic level or foraging area had a negligible influence on temporal trends of contaminants.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Carbon, Radiocarbon dating, Gannet, Gannets, Northern Gannet, Bass Rock, Bonaventure Island


Predators that forage on foods with temporally and spatially patchy distributions may rely on private or public sources of information to enhance their chances of foraging success. Using GPS tracking, field observations, and videography, we examined potential sites and mechanisms of information acquisition in departures for foraging trips by colonially breeding Australasian gannets (Morus serrator). Analyses of the bill-fencing ceremony between mated pairs of breeding gannets did not detect correlations between parameters of this reciprocal behavior and foraging trips, as would have been predicted if gannets used this behavior as a source of private information. Instead, 60 % of the departing birds flew directly to join water rafts of other conspecific en route to the feeding grounds. The departure of solitary birds from the water rafts was synchronized (within 60 s) with the arrival of incoming foragers and also among departing birds. Furthermore, solitary departing birds from the rafts left in the same directional quadrant (90º slices) as the prior arriving (67 %) and also prior departing forager (79 %). When associated plunge dives of conspecific were visible from the colony, providing a public source of information, gannets more often departed from the water rafts in groups. Our study thus provides evidence for the use of water rafts, but not the nest site, as locations of information transfer, and also confirms the use of local enhancement as a strategy for foraging flights by Australasian gannets.

Concepts: Seabird, Optimal foraging theory, Foraging, Forage, Gannet, Australasian Gannet, Gannets, Sulidae