Marine Biology

, 165:47 | Cite as

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

  • Sarah K. Schoen
  • John F. Piatt
  • Mayumi L. Arimitsu
  • Brielle M. Heflin
  • Erica N. Madison
  • Gary S. Drew
  • Martin Renner
  • Nora A. Rojek
  • David C. Douglas
  • Anthony R. DeGange
Original paper


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.



This work was funded by the US Geological Survey (USGS), Ecosystems Mission Area, and the Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) program of both USGS and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The USFWS Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (AMNWR) and the Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands LCC also provided financial and logistic support. We are grateful to AMNWR personnel Steve Delehanty, Jeff Williams, and Heather Renner for program support and for the use of data from Aiktak and Buldir, and to Captain William Pepper and crew of the R/V \(Ti\mathop {\hat{g}}\limits^{{}} la\mathop {\hat{x}}\limits^{{}}\) for outstanding logistic support in the Aleutians. Additional advice and support was provided by Vernon Byrd, Scott Hatch, Lisa Spitler, and Bill Sydeman. We are especially grateful to those who joined us in the field work and contributed to our data collection: Josh Adams, Allison Anholt, Amanda Gladics, Keith Hobson, Kelli Johnson, Forrest Piatt, Barry Sampson, Jane Sullivan, and Ajay Varma. Any use of trade, firm or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not constitute endorsement by the US government. The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, but do represent the views of the US Geological Survey. All capture and handling procedures were reviewed and approved by the US Geological Survey Alaska Science Center Animal Care and Use Committee (number 2013-04).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

Supplementary material

227_2018_3304_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (400 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 400 kb)
227_2018_3304_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (274 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (PDF 273 kb)


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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. government work and its text is not subject to copyright protection in the United States; however, its text may be subject to foreign copyright protection 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.US Geological Survey Alaska Science CenterAnchorageUSA
  2. 2.US Geological Survey Alaska Science CenterJuneauUSA
  3. 3.Tern Again ConsultingHomerUSA
  4. 4.US Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Maritime National Wildlife RefugeHomerUSA

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