Effects of Climate-Induced Changes in Parasitism, Predation and Predator-Predator Interactions on Reproduction and Survival of an Arctic Marine Bird

  • Anthony J. Gaston
  • Kyle H. Elliott
Keywords: murre, Uria lomvia, polar bear, parasitism, predation, food-web complexity, unpredictability


A detailed understanding of the processes and interactions within biological communities is needed to describe and predict the biological consequences of climate change. Global warming may affect biological communities at specific sites through changes in the species composition that follow changes in range, or through altered food web interactions caused by changes in phenology or behaviour. We describe the demographic consequences for a colonial nesting seabird, the Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia), of exceptionally intense mosquito parasitism and predation by polar bears in a particular year. Increases in mosquito parasitism and bear predation are changes in behaviour rather than changes in range, and both caused unusual adult mortality and reproductive failure in Thick-billed Murres. In the case of adult mortality, the effects of predation and parasitism were complementary, whereas in the case of reproductive failure, most birds affected by parasitism would in any case have subsequently lost their eggs to bear predation. The mosquito and bear activities had the secondary result of redirecting the attention of gulls and foxes, the usual predators of murre eggs, towards scavenging carcasses and preying on eggs exposed by birds deserting their ledges. This diversion reduced the impact of gulls and foxes on the murres and altered the spatial configuration of predation risk. Our observations emphasize the difficulty faced by ecologists in predicting the consequences of global warming even for simple and relatively well-studied ecosystems. Moreover, the net effect of combined parasitism and predation was much greater than reported previously, reducing overall colony productivity by 20% and increasing adult mortality by 20%. If this effect happens every year, it will have population consequences.