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Research / Discovery

Iconic Galapagos blue-footed boobies survival threatened

June 28, 2014

Blue-footed boobies are on the decline in the Galapagos. A new study published in Avian Conservation and Ecology indicates numbers of the iconic birds, known for their bright blue feet and propensity to burst into dance to attract mates, have fallen more than 50 percent in less than 20 years.

Blue-footed Booby photo by David Anchundia.The drastic drop in population seems to be linked to an unexplained disappearance of sardines from the boobies’ diet.  This in turn has adult boobies electing not to breed - leading to an ongoing population decline due to lack of new chicks being born.

Colorado State University seabird ecologist and professor Kate Huyvaert was a co-author on the study along with her former master's advisor and colleague Dave Anderson, a professor of biology at Wake Forest and the study’s principal investigator, and master's student David Anchundia. 

Huyvaert is a professor in CSU's Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and has spent years in the Galapagos researching behavioral ecology and conservation of threatened and endangered species, particularly seabirds like the booby and waved albatross. Her research also focuses on wildlife disease ecology.

Where did all the boobies go?

Scientists started noticing a strange trend at the Galápagos’ 10 or so blue-footed  booby breeding colonies in 1997. The colonies, typically home to thousands of breeding boobies and hatching chicks, were simply empty.

"Bluefoots are an iconic species in the islands so several people, including tourist guides and conservation scientists, started to note that it seemed like far fewer bluefoots were around than typical and we started to wonder what was going on," said Huyvaert.

At first, seabird ecologists thought the lack of breeding was an isolated occurrence. Environmental conditions in the wild can be variable and maybe it was just a few bad years.  However, after three years of little to no breeding activity, the research team began to worry.

In 2011, Anderson and Huyvaert received funding from the Galápagos Conservancy, Swiss Friends of Galápagos, and Galápagos Conservation Trust to begin a comprehensive survey of Blue-footed Boobies in the Galápagos. From May 2011 to June 2013, a field team monitored breeding at three to five month intervals at four of the largest blue-footed booby breeding colonies. The results of their study show little to no breeding activity and only 134 fledgling birds during the period.

“It was alarming,” Anderson said. “This was a drastic change from the 1980s and 1990s, when young blue-foots were common throughout the archipelago.”

In addition, the research team estimated a total population of approximately 6,423 Boobies in 2012, less than a third of the only other estimate, from the 1960s.

Photo by David Anchundia

Electing not to breed

The researchers suspect a lack of sardines, a highly nutritious and easy to find source of food, is the culprit behind the birds’ nose-diving population for a number of reasons.

Previous studies conducted at booby colonies on Española show successful breeding occurs only when the birds had an almost 100 percent sardine diet. Over the course of the recent Galápagos study sardines represented less than half of the boobies’ diet.

This suggests the birds find their current, low sardine diet sufficient to live but insufficient to breed successfully.  “We think the main factor behind the decline is a scarcity of food,” Huyvaert said. “Whether that’s natural or linked to anthropogenic change, we aren’t sure.”

So now the question is, where are the sardines, said Johannah Barry, president of the Galápagos Conservancy, which provided funding for the study. “Are they being overfished? Are they leaving Galapagos waters due to climate change or other pressures?” she said. “If they are leaving what other fauna might be impacted?”

Further investigation is important now

Anderson said further investigation is important now rather than later due to the fact that the boobies’ perennial lack of breeding for the better part of two decades means that young birds are not replacing old ones.  The majority of their population in the Galápagos must be nearing elderly ages where raising offspring will become hard, if not impossible.

“We have a convenient explanation that isn’t anthropogenic,” Anderson said. “But if humans are in fact contributing to this decline we need to get to the bottom of it now rather than five years down the road when you have the equivalent of 75-year old humans trying to breed.”

Huyvaert says she is also interested in whether disease is present in the population and, if so, what impact is it having. "Getting to the bottom of the food issue will be an important step we need to take before we’ll have feasible actions to increase breeding," she said.