Marine Biology

, 164:171 | Cite as

Diet specialization in a colonial seabird studied using three complementary dietary techniques: effects of intrinsic and extrinsic factors

  • Maëlle ConnanEmail author
  • Bo T. Bonnevie
  • Christina Hagen
  • Carl D. van der Lingen
  • Christopher McQuaid
Original paper


The breeding period has a critical influence on the trophic ecology of seabirds because of the energetic costs of egg production for females, the need to return regularly to the nest to provision chicks, the combined energetic demands of adults and chicks, and potential intraspecific competition if resources around the colony are scarce. The present study combined three dietary methods to investigate if and how these intrinsic and extrinsic factors influenced diet specialization in a colonially breeding seabird, the Cape gannet Morus capensis. The diet of this species was studied from November 2009 to October 2010 at the species’ largest colony at Bird Island, Algoa Bay (33°50′S, 026°17′E; South Africa). Potential prey species were sampled concurrently and dietary tracers (stable isotopes and fatty acids) were analysed. Stomach content and carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analyses indicated that adults relied heavily all year round on small pelagic fish (anchovy and sardine), with prey species composition and individual prey size changing with season, probably reflecting prey biology. Dietary tracers did not show any differences between adult and chick diets. Subtle differences were found between stable isotope values of adult males and females but these were not supported by a Bayesian mixing model. In contrast, differences between the sexes were highlighted in blood fatty acids. The combined results suggest that these were probably related to the cost of egg production rather than to inter-sex differences in diet. Individual diet specialization was observed using stable isotopes in adults. Altogether this dataset indicates the importance of combining complementary methods to understand multiple facets of seabirds’ trophic ecology, and highlights interactions with fisheries that require future monitoring.



The authors would like to thank George Kant from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries who assisted with the collection of fish samples, Jenny Booth and David Grémillet for their help during fieldwork, Rob Crawford for the updated Cape gannet population counts, and the South African National Parks for facilitating the research on Bird Island. Fatty acid analyses were conducted in the Fatty Acid Facility at Rhodes University funded through the National Research Foundation. Stable isotope analyses were conducted by Ian Newton under the supervision of John Lanham at the Stable Light Isotope Laboratory, University of Cape Town. This work is based on the research supported by the South African Research Chairs Initiative of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation. This work was undertaken under an ethics permit granted by Rhodes University. The authors would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments which greatly improved the manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest and that consent was obtained from all parties.

Ethical approval

All work on Cape gannets was performed under permits issued by the Ethic committee from Rhodes University and South African National Parks (CONM746).

Supplementary material

227_2017_3201_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (450 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 451 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Zoology and EntomologyRhodes UniversityGrahamstownSouth Africa
  2. 2.Department of ZoologyNelson Mandela UniversityPort ElizabethSouth Africa
  3. 3.Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, DST-NRF Centre of ExcellenceUniversity of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa
  4. 4.Seabird Conservation ProgrammeBirdLife South AfricaCape TownSouth Africa
  5. 5.Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Cape Town, South Africa; and Marine Research Institute and Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa

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