CIE Spotlight: Algal subsidies enhance invertebrate prey for threatened shorebirds: A novel conservation tool on ocean beaches?

Mike W.

Authors: Schlacher, Thomas A.; Hutton, Briony M.; Gilby, Ben L.; Porch, Nicholaus; Maguire, Grainne S.; Maslo, Brooke; Connolly, Rod M.; Olds, Andrew D.; Weston, Michael A.

Source: ESTUARINE COASTAL AND SHELF SCIENCE, 191 28-38, MAY 15 2017

Brief summary of the paper: Birds breeding on ocean beaches are threatened globally, often requiring significant investments in species conservation and habitat management. Conservation actions typically encompass spatial and temporal threat reductions and protection of eggs and broods. Still, populations decline or recover only slowly, calling for fresh approaches in beach-bird conservation.

Because energetic demands are critically high during the nesting and chick rearing phases, and chick survival is particularly low, supplementing prey to breeding birds and their offspring is theoretically attractive as a means to complement more traditional conservation measures.

Prey for plovers and similar species on ocean beaches consists of invertebrates (e.g. small crustaceans, insects) many of which feed on stranded masses of plant material (e.g. kelp and seagrass) and use this ‘wrack’ as habitat. We added wrack to the upper beach where plovers nest and their chicks forage to test whether algal subsidies promote the abundance and diversity of their invertebrate prey.

Adding wrack to the upper beach significantly increased the abundance and diversity of invertebrate prey items. At wrack subsidies greater than 50% of surface cover invertebrate assemblages became highly distinct compared with those that received smaller additions of wrack. Substantial (2–4 fold) increases in the abundance amphipods and isopods that are principal prey items for plovers drove these shifts.

This proof-of-concept study demonstrates the feasibility of food provisioning for birds on ocean shores. Whilst novel, it is practicable, inexpensive and does not introduce further restrictions or man-made structures. Thus, it can meaningfully add to the broader arsenal of conservation tools for threatened species that are wholly reliant on sandy beaches as breeding and foraging habitats.