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Comparative behavior, diet, and post-breeding strategies of two sympatric North Pacific albatross species (Phoebastria sp.)


A fundamental condition of the struggle for existence is resource limitation. Optimal foraging theory describes how individuals refine behavior to most efficiently exploit available resources. For colonial breeding animals, such as seabirds, competition for limited resources is amplified by a high density of competitors at feeding grounds near the colony, which can lead to a diversification of foraging strategies that best exploit available resources. Laysan and black-footed albatrosses (Phoebatria immutabilis and P. nigripes, respectively) breed sympatrically and synchronously in dense colonies on small atolls throughout the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. While the distributions and habitat preferences of these congeners are well described, the variability in foraging strategies driven by niche partitioning is not. In chapter 1, I used fine-scale behavioral data from GPS data-loggers to tease apart subtle behavioral nice partitioning between and within Laysan and black-footed albatrosses constrained to poor-nutrient tropical waters during the most energetically-demanding reproductive stage in birds: the brood-guard. Albatrosses showed discrete behavioral partitioning both between and within species, which was driven by differences in nocturnal and diurnal foraging and by sex-specific strategies. Black-footed albatrosses exhibited greater variability in foraging patterns suggesting they may experience strong intraspecific competition at Tern Island. In chapter 2, I employed a novel adaptation of a biochemical diet analysis, quantitative fatty acid analyses, to investigate dietary niche partitioning across the breeding season. This analysis characterized diet of individual adult albatrosses across the breeding season, from incubation to the chick-brood, for the first time in these species. Additionally, this research extended beyond diet characterization to quantify dietary dependence on fisheries-associated resources for these two species. One of the primary threats to albatross is the incidental mortality of birds from fisheries bycatch, therefore, understanding the incidence of fisheries-associated food in the diet of a breeding colony of albatrosses could have important conservation implications. While older birds tended to consume more squid than younger birds, we did not identify an age bias in birds that exploited fisheries resources. Parallel with results from the behavioral analysis in chapter 1, I found that black-footed albatrosses had greater dietary flexibility than Laysan albatrosses at a population level, and a greater degree of dietary specialization at the individual level. In the final chapter, I looked at how the obligatory act of flight feather molt impacted activity levels and space use across the post-breed migrations, when albatrosses are freed from central place foraging constraints, but limited by demands of self-maintenance. I found that activity levels, but not habitat use, were impacted by molt extent. Habitat use appeared to be primarily driven by consistent individual preferences, with birds showing a high degree of site fidelity to their post-breeding molting grounds. A clear decrease in home range size with age indicated that birds spend less time searching for profitable feeding grounds when they are older, likely a product of accumulated memory and experience in these long-lived species.

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