Environmental response of upper trophic-level predators reveals a system change in an Antarctic marine ecosystem

K. Reid, J. P. Croxall

Abstract

Long-term changes in the physical environment in the Antarctic Peninsula region have significant potential for affecting populations of Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), a keystone food web species. In order to investigate this, we analysed data on krill-eating predators at South Georgia from 1980 to 2000. Indices of population size and reproductive performance showed declines in all species and an increase in the frequency of years of low reproductive output. Changes in the population structure of krill and its relationship with reproductive performance suggested that the biomass of krill within the largest size class was sufficient to support predator demand in the 1980s but not in the 1990s. We suggest that the effects of underlying changes in the system on the krill population structure have been amplified by predatorinduced mortality, resulting in breeding predators now regularly operating close to the limit of krill availability. Understanding how krill demography is affected by changes in physical environmental factors and by predator consumption and how, in turn, this influences predator performance and survival, is one of the keys to predicting future change in Antarctic marine ecosystems.