Marine mammal and seabird data
Determining trends and environmental drivers from long-term marine mammal and seabird data: examples from Southern Australia
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, originally collected for other purposes, 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, and how these may be driven by environmental change and variability. We demonstrate the relationship between the magnitude of a trend and the duration of a data series required to detect the trend. In the past, many studies of temporal changes and environmental drivers used linear analyses. However, species may respond to environmental change in a non-linear 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 program requires careful a priori choice of biological variables. These may not always be the most easily measured.