Australia is home to more than 200 nationally protected seabird species. The Foundation has funded 15 bird projects including little penguin, Australasian gannet and mutton birds.
PROJECT TITLE: Microbial ecology of natural and artificial penguin burrows: implications for reproductive success, penguin health and conservation management
RESEARCHERS: Peter Dann, Eric Woehler & Meagan Dewar
LOCATION: Phillip Island Nature Parks
The survival of a species relies upon access to food, shelter and an ability to breed. For nesting animals like birds the availability of breeding sites is particularly important.
To increase site availability in little penguin (Eudyptula minor) populations, artificial nest-boxes have been added to the habitat. They have a high uptake rate (>90% in some parts of the colony) and Sutherland and Dann (2014) 1 have shown that breeding success is higher in artificial nest boxes in comparison to natural nests in most years. However, despite the benefits of nest-boxes, recent research has suggested that nest-boxes in some situations can harbour harmful microbial species that may affect breeding success or parental health 2.
This project aims to:
• Compare nest type and soil type influences on microbial load
• Test the influence of microbial loads breeding success in little penguins
A better understanding of the microbiological consequences of artificial burrow use will allow better decisions about the usefulness of developing burrows with optimal microclimates for breeding penguins.
1. Sutherland, D. R., Dann, P. and Jessop, R. (2014). Evaluating the provision of artificial nest-sites for long-term conservation of a burrow-nesting seabird. Journal of Wildlife Management 78(8):1415–1424
2. Goodenough & Stallwood 2012. Differences in Culturable Microbial Communities in Bird Nestboxes According to Orientation and Influences on Offspring Quality in Great Tits (Parus major ). Microbial ecology 63:986-95.
PROJECT TITLE: Conservation genetics of Antarctic ice-dependent penguins and seals – population connectivity and past interglacial refugia
RESEARCHERS: Karen Miller
By the end of this century it’s estimated that a large proportion of Antarctic sea ice will be lost. This will have severe consequences for species such as seals and penguins that live in the sea ice zone. This project focused on Weddell seals, emperor penguins and Adélie penguins. Weddell seals and emperor penguins are highly ice-dependent and live on Antarctic sea ice all year, even in winter when temperatures plummet to -30°C. They both breed on the sea ice and forage underneath the sea ice. Adélie penguins breed on ice free areas but forage in the sea ice zone. In order for us to implement effective management plans for these animals we need a much better understanding of what the impacts of climate change are likely to be.
In order to predict how present day populations may respond to current warming, researchers will use genetic data to understand how populations have responded to past periods of climate change, and their current capacity to migrate and adapt.
• Historical trends in population size and distribution, and how these were driven by changes in the environment
• Genetic diversity of populations, which is a direct measure of their capacity for physiological adaptation to environmental change
• Gene flow amongst populations, which gives an indication of mobility -- this is important as a mobile species will more readily relocate its range as the current breeding area becomes unsuitable
• Population size, as small populations lack the necessary buffer to help that population survive through periods of high mortality
• Results from this study will directly inform management plans for Australia's Antarctic Territory by identifying likely refugia for iconic penguins and seals, and hence maximising conservation efforts to ensure their persistence.
PROJECT TITLE: Impacts of plastic pollutants on seabirds: the flesh-footed shearwater as a case study
RESEARCHERS: Mark Osborn, Jennifer Lavers & Slobodanka Stojkovic
LOCATION: Lord Howe Island, NSW and Shelter Island, WA
On Lord Howe Island the world’s largest population of flesh-footed shearwaters (Ardenna carneipes) has been declining for more than two decades1. Known threats such as bycatch in long-line fisheries and loss of nesting habitat2 have been largely reduced, but the population shows no signs of recovery. Recent studies suggest plastic pollution is now driving population trends, with the proportion of the population negatively impacted by ingested plastic increasing from 79% in 20073 to 90% in 20114.
Plastic pollution is recognized as a major environmental threat in the ocean as most of the plastic present is at ingestible sizes called ‘microplastic’ (fragments less than 5mm)5. Even around Australia, mean sea surface plastic concentrations of >4000 plastic pieces km2 have been reported6. Plastic can cause physical damage to an animal’s digestive tract, but can also cause malnutrition, when mistakenly ingested as prey. More importantly, due to their ability to act as a ‘sponge’ absorbing various compounds and to be colonised by microbes, plastic fragments can act as a vector for pollutants and potentially pathogens from the water, transferring these to birds and other marine wildlife.
Using two geographically isolated flesh-footed shearwater populations this project aims to:
1. quantify, describe and identify the plastic fragments ingested.
2. determine the proportion of plastic fragments carrying adsorbed persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and identify the major classes of co-pollutants on ingested plastic, with respect to variation in plastic type and the geographical location of the birds.
3. characterise the structure and taxonomic composition of biofilm microbial communities on ingested plastic surfaces, with respect to variation between individual birds from different populations, and to plastic type and organic co-pollutant loads; additionally determine whether ingested plastic fragments serve as a potential vector for pathogens.
Compounds: mixture of two or more chemical elements
Microbes: single-celled microscopic organisms
Vector: a host that transfers diseases or parasites from one organism to another
Pathogens: microorganisms that can cause disease
Adsorbed: adhesion of gas, liquid or dissolved solids onto a solid surface
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs): compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation
Biofilm: layer of microorganisms embedded in a polymeric matrix that forms on a surface
1. Reid, T., Hindell, M., Lavers, J.L. and Wilcox, C. 2013. Re-examining mortality sources and population trends in a declining seabird: using Bayesian methods to incorporate existing information and new data. PLoS One 8, e58230.
2. Baker, G.B. and Wise, B.S. 2005. The impact of pelagic longline fishing on the Flesh-footed Shearwater Puffinus carneipes in eastern Australia. Biological Conservation 126: 306-316
3. Hutton, I., Carlile, N. and Priddel, D. 2008. Plastic ingestion by Flesh-footed Shearwaters, Puffinus carneipes, and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Puffinus pacificus. Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania 142: 67-72.
4. Lavers, J.L., Bond, A.L. and Hutton, I. 2014. Plastic ingestion by Flesh-footed Shearwaters (Puffinus carneipes): Implications for chick body condition and the accumulation of plastic-derived chemicals. Environmental Pollution 187: 124-129.
5. Thompson, R.C., Olsen, Y., Mitchell, R.P., David, A., Rowland, S.J., John, A.W.G., McGonigle D. and Russel A.E. 2004. Lost at Sea: where is all the plastic. Science 304: 838.
6. Reisser, J., Shaw, J., Wilcox, C., Hardesty, B.D., Proietti, M., Thums, M. and Pattiaratchi, C. 2013. Marine plastic pollution in waters around Australia: characteristics, concentrations, and pathways. PLoS One 8, e80466.
PROJECT TITLE: Local and long distance migration studies of mutton birds (short-tailed shearwaters Ardenna tenuirostris) using light level geolocators
RESEARCHERS: David Boyle, K. Goyen and R. Cameron
LOCATION: Cape Woolamai, Phillip Island, Victoria.
This has been the site of long term banding studies of mutton birds. Studies commenced in 1960 with the current Victorian Ornithological Research Group (VORG) activities having been continuous for over 20 years.
The study will provide knowledge that can be used in the future to reduce the welfare impacts of human maritime activities on mutton birds, particularly with respect to their utilisation and access to marine resources. Knowledge gained by the study should support appropriate management of human marine activities where those activities interact with important breeding or migration activities of mutton birds. E.g. significant impacts occur to marine bird species where they interact with commercial fishing activities
Perhaps the greatest threat to marine bird species beyond those that already exist is the impacts that forecast global climate change may have upon maritime resources available to mutton birds during breeding and migration. Long term changes in migration patterns and resource utilisation by mutton birds may well prove to be an indicator of significant and profound changes in the marine environment.
This study aims to explore:
1. local (short and long range) foraging during the stages of the breeding cycle in the land based colonies
2. long distance migration patterns – timing and pathways – of adults post breeding
3. dispersal and long distance migration patterns of chicks and sub-adults – timing and patterns – and their recruitment into the breeding populations.
The data emphasises the critical importance of the Great Southern Ocean marine resources to this species during its breeding activities in Australian colonies. The researchers will need to recover more loggers in coming years to document the detail and variation of the breeding and marine life of this species.