Data from Small birds, big effects: the little auk (Alle alle) transforms high Arctic ecosystems
2017-02-04T05:32:22Z (GMT) by
In some arctic areas, marine-derived nutrients (MDN) resulting from fish migrations fuel freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, increasing primary production and biodiversity. Less is known, however, about the role of seabird-MDN in shaping ecosystems. Here, we examine how the most abundant seabird in the North Atlantic, the little auk (Alle alle), alters freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems around the North Water Polynya (NOW) in Greenland. We compare stable isotope ratios (δ15N and δ13C) of freshwater and terrestrial biota, terrestrial vegetation indices and physical–chemical properties, productivity and community structure of fresh waters in catchments with and without little auk colonies. The presence of colonies profoundly alters freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems by providing nutrients and massively enhancing primary production. Based on elevated δ15N in MDN, we estimate that MDN fuels more than 85% of terrestrial and aquatic biomass in bird influenced systems. Furthermore, by using different proxies of bird impact (colony distance, algal δ15N) it is possible to identify a gradient in ecosystem response to increasing bird impact. Little auk impact acidifies the freshwater systems, reducing taxonomic richness of macroinvertebrates and truncating food webs. These results demonstrate that the little auk acts as an ecosystem engineer, transforming ecosystems across a vast region of Northwest Greenland.