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Seabird Response to Climate Change Transformed Falklands 5,000 Years Ago

New research released Friday shows that a sudden climate shift roughly 5,000 years ago resulted in a new seabird settlement that fundamentally changed the ecosystem of the Falkland Islands and points to a potentially uncertain future for the avian explorers.

(CN) — New research released Friday shows that a sudden climate shift roughly 5,000 years ago resulted in a new seabird settlement that fundamentally changed the ecosystem of the Falkland Islands and points to a potentially uncertain future for the avian explorers.

The Falkland Islands, an island cluster in the South Atlantic Ocean that is well regarded as one the Atlantic’s ecological treasures, has long played home to some of the world’s most notable seabirds alive, including great shearwaters, white-chinned petrels and five different species of penguins. 

The coastal grasslands of the islands that many of these birds settle, however, have found themselves changed by new environmental factors like erosion and sheep grazing in recent history, factors that could pose a threat to seabird survival.

The health of these environments for seabirds, as well as the sparse long-term monitoring efforts to better understand how these creatures respond to climate change, has led researchers to wonder just how seabirds have occupied the Falklands throughout history and how they — and the island they inhabit — respond to environmental shakeups.

In an effort to help answer these questions, a study published Friday in the journal Science Advances reports that after using an exhaustive 14,000-year paleoecological reconstruction of the Falkland Islands, researchers have determined that seabirds first settled the area around 5,000 years ago, a settlement that drastically morphed the islands’ ecosystems.

Researchers say the seabirds carried out this great settlement of the islands in part because the planet was undergoing a cooling phase around five millennia ago. 

While researchers are unsure as to why these cooler temperatures brought them to the islands, Friday’s study reports that once they arrived, they brought about some serious changes for the islands’ environment.

Due to the sudden and potentially large amount of bird droppings that were introduced to the Falkland Islands, the environmental makeup and overall health of the islands were given a significant natural boost. 

Concentrations of bio-elements such as phosphorus and zinc saw major increases, grass pollen accumulation rates went into overdrive and grassy turf became more easily produced all across the islands.

Dulcinea Groff, leader of the research effort and University of Maine doctoral student of ecology and environmental sciences, said that Friday’s research not only shows the environmental value of bird droppings, but also raises serious questions over where and how seabirds will settle amid Earth’s rising temperatures.

"Our work emphasizes just how important the nutrients in seabird poop are for the ongoing efforts to restore and conserve their grassland habitats,” Groff said with the release of the study. 

“It also raises the question about where seabirds will go as the climate continues to warm. Our 14,000-year record shows that seabirds established at Surf Bay during cooler climates. Seabird conservation efforts in the South Atlantic should be prepared for these species to move to new breeding grounds in a warmer world, and those locations may not be protected.”

Researchers say that this relationship between seabirds and the ecosystems of the Falkland Islands have some potentially critical ramifications when considering how the islands and the seabirds themselves could respond to climate change moving forward. 

Given that seabirds were able to introduce so much change to terrestrial environments using natural resources that originated from the marine ecosystem, such changes suggest sensitivity to other climate alterations.

Scientists found that seabirds could also be potentially sensitive to changes in sea surface temperatures, a sensitivity that could lead to dire consequences for their food supplies due to rising ocean temperatures.

Jacquelyn Gill, an associate professor of paleoecology and plant ecology in the University of Maine Climate Change Institute, said Friday’s study serves as a testament to just how important it is for researchers to understand how ecosystems around the world respond to rising global temperatures.

"Our study is also a powerful reminder of why we need to understand how different ecosystems are connected as the world warms," Gill said.

She said that the relationship between seabirds and climate change make it crucial that we come to a better understanding of where seabirds have settled in the past during warmer periods so that we can best prepare for whatever homes they may flock to next.

“We desperately need to have a better sense of where these birds were when the climate was warmer in the past (before they came to the Falklands) because that's where they're likely to go in the future as the world warms,” Gill said in an email. 

“And we need to know why it is they moved — were they tracking changes on land, in the ocean, or the air (i.e., wind speed, which affects how much energy they need to expend to eat)? We just don't know, and it may be a combination of all three. These are going to be true for seabirds all over the world, not just in this critically important breeding habitat.”

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