Original Article

Population Ecology

, Volume 51, Issue 4, pp 459-470

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Seabird metapopulations: searching for alternative breeding habitats

  • Peter SchippersAffiliated withAlterra, Landscape Centre, Wageningen UR Email author 
  • , Robbert P. H. SnepAffiliated withAlterra, Landscape Centre, Wageningen UR
  • , Alex G. M. SchotmanAffiliated withAlterra, Landscape Centre, Wageningen UR
  • , René JochemAffiliated withAlterra, Landscape Centre, Wageningen UR
  • , Eric W. M. StienenAffiliated withResearch Institute for Nature and Forest
  • , Pieter A. SlimAffiliated withAlterra, Landscape Centre, Wageningen UR


Today, many seabird species nest in port areas, which are also necessary for human economic activity. In this paper, we evaluate, using a metapopulation model, the possibilities for creating alternative breeding sites for the Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) in the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt estuary. We explore 22 scenarios that differ with respect to (1) loss of breeding habitat in port areas, (2) location and size of newly created habitat, and (3) coexistence of old and new habitat. Results indicate that loss of port area habitats results in a serious 41% decline in the breeding population. When the loss in ports is compensated for within the ports, the decline was negligible. Fourteen scenarios result in an increase of the Common Tern metapopulation. In these, extra breeding habitat is created outside the ports in fish-rich waters, resulting in a potential metapopulation increase of 25%. However, the period of overlap between lost and newly created habitat strongly affects the results. A gap between the removal of old and the creation of new breeding areas might cause a drop in the metapopulation level of 30%. The population recovery from this drop might take more than 100 years due to slow recolonization. Our results suggest that conservation of seabird species should be evaluated on a metapopulation scale and that the creation of new habitat may help to compensate for habitat loss in other areas. Furthermore, the results indicate that overlap between the existence of old and newly created breeding habitats is crucial for the success of compensation efforts. However, new locations should be carefully selected, because not only is the suitability of the breeding grounds important, but ample fish availability nearby is also key.


Alternative stable states Colonization Dispersal Metapopulation Scenarios Species conservation