Dynamic ecology of Aldabran seabird communities
Diamond, A. W.
MetadataShow full item record
The characteristics of the present seabird community of Aldabra are described, and compared briefly with others in the tropics. By comparison with Pacific Ocean communities, Aldabra is deficient especially in petrels and shearwaters, which are poorly represented in the western Indian Ocean generally and are absent probably for zoogeographic reasons. Ground-nesting species are also scarce, especially pelagic feeders that form large colonies, and this is attributed partly to their extermination by rats and partly to the proximity of Assumption, and perhaps Cosmoledo, that offer better nesting sites to these species. Inshore-feeding terns are also scarce on Aldabra, probably owing to insufficient areas of shallow water nearby. Relative population sizes are roughly in agreement with those that would be predicted, except for the fairy tern whose population may have been reduced in the past by barn owls. Almost all Aldabran seabirds nest either in mangroves or on small lagoon islets, the habitats in which birds are least vulnerable to introduced rats, which appear to have had a major effect on nesting distribution. The seabird community is made up of two different trophic guilds, the pelagic feeders which bring in nutrients entirely from outside the ecosystem, and the inshore feeders which cycle nutrients between the intertidal and inshore parts of the system and the terrestrial part. Both result in a net input of nutrients, in the form of bird droppings, to the terrestrial ecosystem. It is estimated that about 1680 t of food are removed from the sea per year, most of the 105 t of guano resulting being channelled into the intertidal, rather than the terrestrial, parts of the ecosystem. The seabird communities likely to have occupied Aldabra in the past are reconstructed on the basis of the known changes in the atoll's size and structure during the Pleistocene. At most times there would have been more species of seabird using Aldabra than now, and more of their guano would have passed into the terrestrial ecosystem. Probably the most significant event in the recent history of the atoll was the arrival of rats, which exterminated probably quite considerable colonies of ground-nesting seabirds and drove the survivors into the only places where the rats could not survive - the tall mangroves and the tiny lagoon islets. In so doing, the rats destroyed a significant source of nutrient input to the terrestrial ecosystem, with major consequences for the ecology of the atoll as a whole.