, Volume 147, Issue 1, pp 27-35
Date: 04 Mar 2005

Habitat use and group size of pied cormorants (Phalacrocorax varius) in a seagrass ecosystem: possible effects of food abundance and predation risk

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Abstract

Both food abundance and predation risk may influence habitat use decisions. However, studies of habitat use by birds in marine environments have focused only on food abundance. I investigated the possible influences of food abundance and predation risk from tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) on habitat use by pied cormorants (Phalacrocorax varius) over two spatial scales and on cormorant group size. Cormorants were usually solitary, but group size was highest in shallow habitats during months when shark density was low. Regardless of season, cormorant density within shallow habitats was higher over seagrass than sand, and cormorants were distributed between these two microhabitats proportional to prey density. Therefore, cormorants appear to respond to prey abundance at a relatively narrow spatial scale (i.e., tens of meters). At the habitat-patch scale (~1 km), the density of cormorants and their prey (teleosts) was higher in shallow habitats than in deep ones, but the density of cormorants was influenced by an interaction between water temperature (i.e., season) and habitat. There was decreased use of shallow habitats as water temperature, and the density of tiger sharks, increased. When shark density was low, cormorants were distributed across habitats roughly in proportion to the abundance of fish, suggesting that cormorants respond to food abundance at the scale of habitat patches. However, as shark abundance increased, the relative density of cormorants dropped in the dangerous shallow habitats such that there was a greater density of cormorants relative to their food in deep habitats when sharks were abundant. This suggests that pied cormorants trade-off food and risk by accepting lower energetic returns to forage in safer habitats. This study provides the first evidence that marine habitat selection by birds may be influenced by such a trade-off, and provides further evidence that tiger sharks are important in determining habitat use of their prey and mediating indirect interactions within Shark Bay.

Communicated by P. W. Sammarco, Chauvin