The endangered bank cormorant Phalacrocorax neglectus: the heat is on : understanding the effect of climate change and associated environmental variable changes on the breeding biology and population dynamics of the bank cormorant in the W. C., S. A

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The bank cormorant Phalacrocorax neglectus was listed as ‘Endangered’ in 2004, following a decrease of more than 60% in the total population from 1975-2011. It ranges from central Namibia to the Western Cape, South Africa, with most of the population occurring on offshore islands in Namibia. The main reason for this study was to determine if climate change could be identified as a factor which has influenced the decreasing numbers of bank cormorants. This involved research on the heat stress behaviour, breeding success and population trends of the bank cormorant in the Western Cape, South Africa. High environmental temperatures resulting in heat stress and storms with associated extreme environmental variables was predicted to cause breeding failures, decreasing breeding success. As a result, climate change can also affect long-term trends in the adult population of the bank cormorant, and this was examined using the population data of nine bank cormorant colonies in the Western Cape, South Africa. A link existed between ambient and operative temperature, and the latter was used for statistical analysis. Mean operative temperatures of over 30°C were experienced. Temperatures were highest at the bank cormorant colony at Robben Island when three colonies were compared (Robben Island, Jutten Island and Stony Point). Increased environmental temperatures resulted in the average bank cormorant increasing its time spent employing thermoregulatory behaviour. Bank cormorants were shown to start gular fluttering at 21°C on average and spend all their time gular fluttering when they experienced an operative temperature of 34.2°C or higher. The birds also started employing this thermoregulatory behaviour at a lower temperature when on eggs or small chicks. During the study period, the breeding success of the bank cormorant was not impacted by high temperatures at the three bank cormorant colonies studied. Wave and wind action, associated with storms, resulted in a lowered reproductive output during the breeding seasons of 2012 and 2013. Both incubation success and chick rearing success did not differ significantly between 2012 and 2013 for the three bank cormorant colonies at Robben Island, Jutten Island and Stony Point. The study of long-term trends in colony sizes of nine bank cormorant colonies in the Western Cape, South Africa revealed a decrease in the bank cormorants breeding population. The decrease could not be directly associated with climate change in the region. An increase in the mean maximum temperatures and a decrease in the annual rainfall did not affect the bank cormorant numbers, but rather the fecundity. This resulted in a lagged effect of climate change on the bank cormorant population. Climate change and extreme weather events can cause massive breeding failures.

Includes bibliographical references.