The Beautiful Sea Creatures

Posted by Carolina Lara @carislaris

In the process of becoming half New Zealander, I have invariably found myself spending a lot of time at the beach. I grew up in a semi-deserted area of Mexico so the marine environment was unknown to me, particularly the vast seabird community. From this I’ve learnt two things, not all birds live in the forest and not all seabirds are seagulls. In New Zealand/Aotearoa, around a third of the ca. 80 species of seabirds are endemic. Among the most amazing ones we find the largest albatross in the world, the magnificent toroa; the tiny and unfortunately endangered dotterel/tūturiwhatu; the Chatham Island oystercatcher/tōrea; the Westland petrel/tāiko, and the fascinating  New Zealand storm petrel (believed extinct and re-discovered in 2003), to mention a few.


New Zealand storm Petrel

Why are seabirds important? Well as explained by Moller et al (2000), seabirds often breed in dense colonies and their abundance, high guano loads and soil burrowing makes them a “keystone species”, species that play a large role in the prevalence and population levels of other species within their environment.  Any change in seabirds abundance would likely affect important soil processes (nitrification, plant regeneration) and therefore abundance of other animal species. Most importantly, seabirds shape the ecology of terrestrial communities by acting as a link between the sea and the land because they import marine-derived nutrients into terrestrial communities.

Despite the great value of seabirds in maintaining of ecosystems, their abundance has dramatically decrease worldwide, with an estimated 70% decline over the last 60 years, representing the deaths of 230 million birds. Some of the threats seabirds face are: plastic pollution (plastic rubbish is found in 90% of birds guts), overfishing, toxic pollution, nest predation by invasive species (e.g. rats) and the effects of rising sea temperatures on their food supply. New Zealand hasn’t escaped this trend with the dotterel/tūturiwhatu and yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho making it to the news recently, not many individuals of each species are left in the wild.


Dotterel/tūturiwhatu at Martin’s Bay

Is there still hope for our seabirds? Yes, with adequate management programs to get rid of invasive species in seabird colonies, regulating fishing to avoid birds getting caught in fish nets, reducing our plastic consumption and the establishment of conservation areas we can expect a recovery in seabird abundance in the long run. For now, let’s go out and appreciate these beautiful sea creatures.


CalisCarolina Lara M. is a PhD Candidate within the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her research interests focus on seed dispersal networks within fragmented landscapes. She is supervised by Margaret StanleyJason Tylianakis, Karine David, and Anna Santure.

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