Water Masses, Ocean Fronts, and the Structure of Antartic Seabird Communities: Putting the Eastern Bellingshausen Sea in Perspective


Christine Ribic, David Ainley, R. Glenn Ford, William Fraser, Cynthia Tynan, and Eric Woehler




Waters off the western Antarctic Peninsula (i.e., the eastern Bellingshausen Sea) are unusually complex owing to the convergence of several major fronts. Determining relative influence of fronts on occurrence patterns of top-trophic species in that area, therefore, has been challenging. In one of the few ocean-wide seabird data syntheses, in this case for the Southern Ocean, we analyzed ample, previously collected cruise datea, Antarctic-wide, to determine seabird species assemblages and quantitative relationships to fronts as a way to provide context to the long-term Palmer LTER and the winter Southern Ocean GLOBEC (SO GLOBEC) studies in the eastern Bellingshausen Sea. Fronts investigated during both winter (April - September) and summer (October - March) were the southern boundary of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), which separates the High Antarctic from the Low Antarctic water mass, and within which are embedded the marginal ice zone and Antarctic shelf break front; and the Antarctic Polar Front, which separates Low Antarctic and the Subantarctic water masses. We used clustering to determine species' groupings with water masses, and generalized advective models to relate species' densitites, biomass and diversity to distance to respective fronts. Antarctic-wide, in both periods, highest seabird densities and lowest species diversity were found in the High Antarctic water mass. In the eastern Bellingshausen, seabird density in the High Antarctic water mass was lower (as low as half that of winter) than found in other Antarctic regions. During winter, Antarctic-wide, two significant species groups were evident: one dominated by Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) (High Antarctic water mass) and the other by petrels and prions (no differentiation among water masses); in eastern Bellingshausen waters during winter, the significant species group was composed of species from both Antarctic-wide groups. In summer, Antarctic-wide, a High Antarctic group dominated by Adéelie penguins, a Low Antarctic group dominated by petrels, and a Subantarctic group dominated by albatross were evident. In eastern Bellingshausen waters during summer, groups were inconsistent. In regard to frontal features, Antarctic-wide in winter, distance to the ice edge was an important explanatory factor for nine of 14 species, distance to the Antarctic Polar Front for six species and distance to the Shelf Break Front for six species; however, these Antarctic-wide models could not successfully predict spatial relationships of winter seabird density (individual species or total) and biomass in the eastern Bellingshausen. Antarctic-wide in summer, distance to land/Antarctic continent was important for 10 of 18 species, not a surprising result for these summer-time Antarctic breeders, as colonies are associated with ice-free areas of coastal land. Distance to the Shelf Break Front was important for 8 and distance to the southern boundary of the ACC was important for 7 species. These summer models were more successful in predicting eastern Bellingshausen species density and species diversity but failed to predict total seabird density or biomass. Antarctic seabirds appear to respond to fronts in a way similar to that observed along the well-studied upwelling front of the California Current. To understand fully the seabird patterns found in this synthesis, multi-disciplinary at-sea investigations, including a quantified prey field, are needed.




09/14/09: Revision accepted; editor acceptance letter sent to corresponding author.