Top-down control of a marine mesopredator: increase in native white-tailed eagles accelerates the extinction of an endangered seabird population.

Published online
18 Sep 2023
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Anker-Nilssen, T. & Fayet, A. L. & Aarvak, T.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
Norway & Norwegian Sea & Nordic Countries


Bottom-up control is an important regulator of marine mesopredators such as seabirds. The prevalence of top-down control on these species is however less well understood. In particular, how native predators affect seabird populations has rarely been quantified. Here, we investigate how an increase in white-tailed eagles in northern Norway, a stronghold for the species, affected a local population of 25,000 pairs of black-legged kittiwakes, a red-listed seabird, during a 42-year period ending with colony extinction. We use a natural experiment of two neighbouring colonies with/without eagle predation to disentangle the effects of eagles from local kittiwake foraging conditions (using size of young herring as a proxy).At the colony where eagle predation occurred, and in contrast to the eagle-free colony, kittiwake breeding success and population size declined with increased eagle abundance, the latter more strongly under poor foraging conditions. Breeding success increased with improving foraging conditions at both colonies. Simple population modelling shows that although conditions were insufficient to sustain the eagle-exposed colony, the increased abundance of eagles sped up its extirpation by many years.Policy implications. Our study shows that top-down effects from avian predators can be significant regulators of seabird populations, challenging their conservation where native, often protected, predators are rising. Such effects, and their possible interaction with other factors, must also be accounted for when using seabird demographic traits as environmental indicators and when developing more flexible and effective management and action plans.

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