Habitat-mediated population limitation in a colonial central-place forager: the sky is not the limit for the black-browed albatross
Animal populations are frequently limited by the availability of food or of habitat. In central-place foragers, the cost of accessing these resources is distance-dependent rather than uniform in space. However, in seabirds, a widely studied exemplar of this paradigm, empirical population models have hitherto ignored this cost. In part, this is because non-independence among colonies makes it difficult to define population units. Here, we model the effects of both resource availability and accessibility on populations of a wide-ranging, pelagic seabird, the black-browed albatross Thalassarche melanophris. Adopting a multi-scale approach, we define regional populations objectively as spatial clusters of colonies. We consider two readily quantifiable proxies of resource availability: the extent of neritic waters (the preferred foraging habitat) and net primary production (NPP). We show that the size of regional albatross populations has a strong dependence, after weighting for accessibility, on habitat availability and to a lesser extent, NPP. Our results provide indirect support for the hypothesis that seabird populations are regulated from the bottom-up by food availability during the breeding season, and also suggest that the spatio-temporal predictability of food may be limiting. Moreover, we demonstrate a straightforward, widely applicable method for estimating resource limitation in populations of central-place foragers.
Authors: Wakefield, E. D., Phillips, R. A., Matthiopoulos, J.