Are edge bird populations doomed to extinction? A retrospective analysis of the common guillemot collapse in Iberia

Munilla, I., Díez, C. & Velando, A. Are edge bird populations doomed to extinction? A retrospective analysis of the common guillemot collapse in Iberia. Biological Conservation 137, 359–371 (2007).


In the first half of the XXth century, the common guillemot (Uria aalge) was the seabird with the largest breeding population in Atlantic Iberia (ca. 20,000 individuals), the low-latitude limit of the species breeding range. However, this population suffered a dramatic decline and is quasi-extinct at present. The decline was believed to be associated with reduced availability of pelagic prey fish due to climate change. In this study, we analyzed the population change of Iberian guillemots in the second half of the XXth century by means of a retrospective analysis. Our study showed that between 1960 and 1974 the guillemots in Iberia suffered a dramatic population crash (33.3% annual decline) and that subsequently, the population continued to decline at a slower annual rate (13.4%). Simulation models indicated that the factors driving the population crash should be related to adult survival, rather than reproduction. The analysis of environmental and fishery data suggested good climate conditions and higher or sustained availability of pelagic prey fish when the Iberian guillemots crashed. In contrast, relevant human-related factors were affecting adult mortality in that period, specially a rapid and large increase in the number of synthetic fishing nets. During the collapse, no conservation measures were undertaken to mitigate anthropogenic threats and it was assumed, in some extent, that this low-latitude edge population was somehow prone to extinction as a consequence of climate change. This study high- lights that to carelessly attribute the decline of rear edge populations to climate change could be highly misleading if the population is suffering from other, particularly human, threats.

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