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Determining trends and environmental drivers from long-term marine mammal and seabird data: examples from Southern Australia

Abstract

Climate change is acknowledged as an emerging threat for top-order marine predators, yet obtaining evidence of impacts is often difficult. In south-eastern Australia, a marine global warming hotspot, evidence suggests that climate change will profoundly affect pinnipeds and seabirds. Long-term data series are available to assess some species’ responses to climate. Researchers have measured a variety of chronological and population variables, such as laying dates, chick or pup production, colony-specific abundance and breeding success. Here, we consider the challenges in accurately assessing trends in marine predator data, using long-term data series that were originally collected for other purposes, and how these may be driven by environmental change and variability. In the past, many studies of temporal changes and environmental drivers used linear analyses and we demonstrate the (theoretical) relationship between the magnitude of a trend, its variability, and the duration of a data series required to detect a linear trend. However, species may respond to environmental change in a nonlinear manner and, based on analysis of time-series from south-eastern Australia, it appears that the assumptions of a linear model are often violated, particularly for measures of population size. The commonly measured demographic variables exhibit different degrees of variation, which influences the ability to detect climate signals. Due to their generally lower year-to-year variability, we illustrate that monitoring of variables such as mass and breeding chronology should allow detection of temporal trends earlier in a monitoring programme than observations of breeding success and population size. Thus, establishing temporal changes with respect to climate change from a monitoring programme over a relatively short time period requires careful a priori choice of biological variables.

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Acknowledgments

This research contributed to the project, ‘Human adaptation options to increase resilience of conservation-dependent seabirds and marine mammals impacted by climate change’, which was supported by funding from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation—Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency on behalf of the Australian Government. We wish to thank the many researchers who contributed biological time-series to this project (as listed in Table S1 for south-eastern Australia). We appreciate helpful comments provided by N. Schumann, G. Young and an anonymous reviewer on an earlier draft of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Lynda E. Chambers.

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Editor: Wolfgang Cramer.

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Chambers, L.E., Patterson, T., Hobday, A.J. et al. Determining trends and environmental drivers from long-term marine mammal and seabird data: examples from Southern Australia. Reg Environ Change 15, 197–209 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-014-0634-8

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Keywords

  • Seabird
  • Marine mammal
  • Regression
  • Climate
  • Little Penguin
  • South-eastern Australia