Climate and density shape population dynamics of a marine top predator

Christophe Barbraud, Henri Weimerskirch

Abstract

Long-term studies have documented that climate fluctuations affect the dynamics of populations, but the relative influence of stochastic and density–dependent processes is still poorly understood and debated. Most studies have been conducted on terrestrial systems, and lacking are studies on marine systems explicitly integrating the fact that most populations live in seasonal environments and respond to regular or systematic environmental changes. We separated winter from summer mortality in a seabird population, the blue petrel Halobaena caerulea, in the southern Indian Ocean where the El Niño/Southern Oscillation effects occur with a 3–4–year lag. Seventy per cent of the mortality occurred in winter and was linked to climatic factors, being lower during anomalous warm events. The strength of density dependence was affected by climate, with population crashes occurring when poor conditions occurred at high densities. We found that an exceptionally long–lasting warming caused a ca. 40% decline of the population, suggesting that chronic climate change will strongly affect this top predator. These findings demonstrate that populations in marine systems are particularly susceptible to climate variation through complex interactions between seasonal mortality and density–dependent effects.

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