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Diet, provisioning and productivity responses of marine predators to differences in availability of Antarctic krill

by J. P. Croxall, K. Reid, P. A. Prince
Marine Ecology Progress Series ()

Abstract

Knowledge of relationships between prey availability and predator performance is the key to using predators as indicators of the state of marine systems and to assessing potential consequences of competition between natural predators and man for common resources. Fluctuations in the abundance of Antarctic krill are believed to have a substantial influence on the reproductive performance of krill-dependent top predator species in the Southern Ocean; few quantifications of such interactions exist. At South Georgia, for 2 years in which acoustic surveys revealed a major difference in krill abundance, we compared diet, provisioning of offspring and breeding success in 4 main predator species (2 penguins, 2 albatrosses, with supporting data from Antarctic fur seal) whose dependence on krill typically ranges from 20 to 90%. The 4-fold difference in krill biomass between 1986 (ca 30 g m(-2)) and 1994 (ca 7 g m(-2)) was accompanied by (1) an 88 to 90% reduction in the mass of krill in predator diets (and some increase in the fish component), (2) greater prey diversity for most species, (3) reduced diet overlap between species and (4) a switch from krill to amphipods in macaroni penguin but no major dietary change in other species. Rates of provisioning of offspring decreased by 90% in gentoo penguin and 40 to 50% in the other 3 species; this was due to reduced meal size in penguins (by 90% in gentoo and 50% in macaroni) and to doubling of foraging trip duration in albatrosses. Breeding success was reduced by 50% in grey-headed albatross (the species least dependent on krill), by 90% in black-browed albatross and gentoo penguin (only 3 to 4% of eggs producing fledged chicks) but by only 10% in macaroni penguin, presumably reflecting its ability to switch to small prey unprofitable for the other species. However, all species (except for black-browed albatross), particularly macaroni penguin, produced fledglings significantly lighter than usual, probably affecting their subsequent survival. Some effects on adult survival could also be inferred. Our results show a coherent, though complex, pattern of within and between species similarities and differences. These mainly reflect the degree of dependence on krill, the feasibility of taking alternative prey and constraints on trip duration and/or meal size imposed by foraging adaptations (especially relating to travel speeds and diving abilities, whereby flightless divers and pelagic foragers differ markedly). The generality of these principles are explored through comparison with other studies, particularly of Shetland seabirds.

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