Trouble in paradise: Climate change, extreme weather and wildlife conservation on a tropical island.

Joseph Taylor, NERC SCEARNIO DTP student. Zoological Society of London.

Email: J.Taylor5@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Projecting the impacts of climate change on biodiversity is important for informing

Mauritius Kestrel by Joe Taylor
Male Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus) in the Bambous Mountains, eastern Mauritius. Photo by Joe Taylor.

mitigation and adaptation strategies. There are many studies that project climate change impacts on biodiversity; however, changes in the occurrence of extreme weather events are often omitted, usually because of insufficient understanding of their ecological impacts. Yet, changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events may pose a greater threat to ecosystems than changes in average weather regimes (Jentsch and Beierkuhnlein 2008). Island species are expected to be particularly vulnerable to climate change pressures, owing to their inherently limited distribution, population size and genetic diversity, and because of existing impacts from human activities, including habitat destruction and the introduction of non-native species (e.g. Fordham and Brook 2010).

Mauritius is an icon both of species extinction and the successful recovery of threatened species. However, the achievements made through dedicated conservation work and the investment of substantial resources may be jeopardised by future climate change. Conservation programmes in Mauritius have involved the collection of extensive data on individual animals, creating detailed longitudinal datasets. These provide the opportunity to conduct in-depth analyses into the factors that drive population trends.

My study focuses on the demographic impacts of weather conditions, including extreme events, on three globally threatened bird species that are endemic to Mauritius. I extended previous research into weather impacts on the Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus), and applied similar methods to the echo parakeet (Psittacula eques) and Mauritius fody (Foudia rubra). The kestrel and parakeet were both nearly lost entirely in the 1970s and 1980s respectively, having suffered severe population bottlenecks, but all three species have benefitted from successful recovery programmes. I analysed breeding success using generalised linear mixed models and analysed survival probability using capture-mark-recapture models. Established weather indices were adapted for use in this study, including indices to quantify extreme rainfall, droughts and tropical cyclone activity. Trends in weather indices at key conservation sites were also analysed.

The results for the Mauritius kestrel add to a body of evidence showing that precipitation is an important limiting factor in its demography and population dynamics. The focal population in the Bambous Mountains of eastern Mauritius occupies an area in which rainfall is increasing. This trend could have implications for the population, as my analyses provide evidence that heavy rainfall during the brood phase of nests reduces breeding success, and that prolonged spells of rain in the cyclone season negatively impact the survival of juveniles. This probably occurs through reductions in hunting efficiency, time available for hunting and prey availability, so that kestrels are unable to capture enough prey to sustain themselves and feed their young (Nicoll et al. 2003, Senapathi et al. 2011). Exposure to heavy and prolonged rainfall could also be a direct cause of mortality through hypothermia, especially for chicks if nests are flooded (Senapathi et al. 2011). Future management of this species may need to incorporate strategies to mitigate the impacts of increasing rainfall.

References:

Fordham, D. A. and Brook, B. W. (2010) Why tropical island endemics are acutely susceptible to global change. Biodiversity and Conservation 19(2): 329‒342.

Jentsch, A. and Beierkuhnlein, C. (2008) Research frontiers in climate change: Effects of extreme meteorological events on ecosystems. Comptes Rendus Geoscience 340: 621‒628.

Nicoll, M. A. C., Jones, C. G. and Norris, K. (2003) Declining survival rates in a reintroduced population of the Mauritius kestrel: evidence for non-linear density dependence and environmental stochasticity. Journal of Animal Ecology 72: 917‒926.

Senapathi, D., Nicoll, M. A. C., Teplitsky, C., Jones, C. G. and Norris, K. (2011) Climate change and the risks associated with delayed breeding in a tropical wild bird population. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 278: 3184‒3190.