Research ArticleECOLOGY

Trophic signatures of seabirds suggest shifts in oceanic ecosystems

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Science Advances  14 Feb 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 2, eaao3946
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aao3946

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Pelagic ecosystems are dynamic ocean regions whose immense natural capital is affected by climate change, pollution, and commercial fisheries. Trophic level–based indicators derived from fishery catch data may reveal the food web status of these systems, but the utility of these metrics has been debated because of targeting bias in fisheries catch. We analyze a unique, fishery-independent data set of North Pacific seabird tissues to inform ecosystem trends over 13 decades (1890s to 2010s). Trophic position declined broadly in five of eight species sampled, indicating a long-term shift from higher–trophic level to lower–trophic level prey. No species increased their trophic position. Given species prey preferences, Bayesian diet reconstructions suggest a shift from fishes to squids, a result consistent with both catch reports and ecosystem models. Machine learning models further reveal that trophic position trends have a complex set of drivers including climate, commercial fisheries, and ecomorphology. Our results show that multiple species of fish-consuming seabirds may track the complex changes occurring in marine ecosystems.

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