What are the physiological costs to seabirds adapting to polar climate change?

The ability of animals to adapt to their environment is crucial for populations to persist in a changing climate. Changing behaviours to match environmental change can be adaptive but plasticity can be costly, particularly in unpredictable environments, such as the Arctic. For long-lived species, such as seabirds, which are exposed to a broad range of climatic conditions, it is difficult to estimate consequences for survival in the short term, such that negative effects of climate change can be missed.

Ecologically induced costs may be detectable in the short-term through oxidative stress levels, shortening of telomeres and changes to the gut microbiota but studies have not attempted to estimate the costs/benefits of phenotypic plasticity by quantifying these physiological traits, nor linked this to models of climate change. Objectives
1. Using polar seabirds, deploy biologging devices to measure plasticity in foraging behaviour. 2. Using physiological traits, such as telomere length, oxidative stress levels and microbiome composition, identify possible costs of plasticity
3. Link these physiological measures to foraging plasticity and climate metrics

First, studies in wild vertebrates haven’t linked oxidative stress, telomeres and microbiomes, despite predictions that the costs of reproduction may affect them all. Second, despite changes in behaviour being crucial to adapting to climate change, no study in the wild has linked the costs and benefits of plasticity in foraging to such a combination of physiological traits, nor with climate models. Timeliness
The rapid development of low-cost techniques to quantify physiologically deterioration means that studies looking at multiple measures, and the relationship between them, is becoming increasingly possible. In combination with biologging technology, which allows large amounts of foraging data to be collected across time, these data offer a timely opportunity to study the costs of plasticity.

Grant reference
Natural Environment Research Council
Total awarded
£0 GBP
Start date
30 Sep 2021
3 years 6 months
End date
30 Mar 2025