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Avian predator buffers against variability in marine habitats with flexible foraging behavior

March 9, 2018

How well seabirds compensate for variability in prey abundance and composition near their breeding colonies influences their distribution and reproductive success. We used tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) as forage fish samplers to study marine food webs from the western Aleutian Islands (53°N, 173°E) to Kodiak Island (57°N, 153°W), Alaska, during August 2012–2014. Around each colony we obtained data on: environmental characteristics (sea surface temperature and salinity, seafloor depth and slope, tidal range, and chlorophyll-a), relative forage fish biomass (hydroacoustic backscatter), and seabird community composition and density at-sea. On colonies, we collected puffin chick-meals to characterize forage communities and determine meal energy density, and measured chicks to obtain a body condition index. There were distinct environmental gradients from west to east, and environmental variables differed by ecoregions: the (1) Western-Central Aleutians, (2) Eastern Aleutians, and, (3) Alaska Peninsula. Forage fish biomass, species richness, and community composition all differed markedly between ecoregions. Forage biomass was strongly correlated with environmental gradients, and environmental gradients and forage biomass accounted for ~ 50% of the variability in at-sea density of tufted puffins and all seabird taxa combined. Despite the local and regional variability in marine environments and forage, the mean biomass of prey delivered to puffin chicks did not differ significantly between ecoregions, nor did chick condition or puffin density at-sea. We conclude that puffins can adjust their foraging behavior to produce healthy chicks across a wide range of environmental conditions. This extraordinary flexibility enables their overall success and wide distribution across the North Pacific Ocean.