Conservation Genetics

, Volume 13, Issue 6, pp 1469–1481 | Cite as

Effects of long-term isolation on genetic variation and within-island population genetic structure in Christmas Island (Indian Ocean) seabirds

  • James A. Morris-PocockEmail author
  • Janos C. Hennicke
  • Vicki L. Friesen
Research Article


Seabirds endemic to remote oceanic islands face several unique threats to their population viability. Christmas Island is a small oceanic island with remarkable seabird biodiversity, including two endangered endemics: Christmas Island frigatebirds (Fregata andrewsi) and Abbott’s boobies (Papasula abbotti). Christmas Island seabirds are currently threatened by habitat destruction at breeding sites due to phosphate mining and by the adverse effects of the invasive yellow crazy ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes); however, conservation initiatives are limited by a paucity of genetic data on the breeding seabirds. To address this shortcoming, we collected genetic samples from five breeding seabird species, including the two endemics. We surveyed mitochondrial and nuclear genetic diversity, estimated effective population sizes, and tested whether species had undergone recent or long-term effective population size decline. Effective population sizes for Christmas Island frigatebirds and Abbott’s boobies were both low (approximately 5,000 and 2,100 individuals, respectively). Moreover, four out of the five species appeared to have undergone long-term population decline, suggesting that mitigation of the threats to population viability of Christmas Island seabirds is critical. We also detected cryptic population genetic structure within Abbott’s booby, perhaps due to in situ divergence on Christmas Island or due to the influx of individuals from an extirpated colony. Within-island differentiation may be common among endemic seabird species due to high levels of natal philopatry, and we suggest that careful consideration of population genetic structure on small geographic scales is crucial when designing conservation initiatives.


Abbott’s booby Christmas Island Christmas Island frigatebird Cryptic population structure Fregata Population decline Sula 



Fieldwork was conducted within the framework of the Christmas Island Seabird Project ( which was supported by grants from the Universität Hamburg, MiniWunderland Hamburg, Christmas Island Trust, Christmas Island Territory Week Committee, Christmas Island Tourist Association, and several private sponsors. We thank L. Braun, N. Denhard, K. Flachsbarth, K. Grenz, K. Kleiss, S. Luecht, J. Navarro, L. Pein, M. Schiffler, F. Schuster, and M. Van der Stap for assistance with sample collection. Funding was supplied by a National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grant (V.F.L.) and a NSERC Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship (J.A.M.P.). Grube KG Hützel, Germany, Rische & Herfurth Hamburg, Germany, and The North Face Inc., USA, provided in-kind support. Christmas Island National Park kindly provided logistical support and accommodation. We would like to thank, in particular, L. Ott and Z. Sun for lab support. T. Birt, P. Deane, G. Ibarguchi, S. Taylor, and S. Wallace also provided lab support and/or helpful discussion. Technical assistance was provided by Corine Zotti of the sequencing platform at the McGill University and Genome Quebec Innovation Centre. All experiments were carried out with permits from Parks Australia North, Christmas Island National Park, the Department of Environment of Australia, Bundesamt für Naturschutz, Germany, and Amt für Gesundheit und Verbraucherschutz der Hansestadt Hamburg, Germany, and in accordance with the principles and guidelines of the German and Australian laws on animal welfare. Christmas Island frigatebird and Abbott’s booby samples were transferred to Queen’s University in Canada under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) permit 09CA00253/CWHQ.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 26 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 20 kb)
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Supplementary material 3 (DOCX 14 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • James A. Morris-Pocock
    • 1
    Email author
  • Janos C. Hennicke
    • 2
    • 3
  • Vicki L. Friesen
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyQueen’s UniversityKingstonCanada
  2. 2.Department of Animal Ecology and Conservation, Biozentrum GrindelUniversität HamburgHamburgGermany
  3. 3.Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de ChizéVilliers-en-BoisFrance

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