Coral Reefs Need Bird Poop, But Rat Infestations Threaten Seabird Population

Eradication of black rats from vulnerable tropical islands should be a ‘high conservation priority, say scientists

With the significant links found between rat presence and coral reef health, the team who spearheaded the study is pushing for the prioritization of eradicating rats from islands. Here's how the decimation of seabirds by rodents affects the health of nearby coral reefs.

This positive effect spilled over into the sea - with almost 50 per cent more fish living near islands fertilised by seabirds than those infested with rats. Soil and plants on the rat-free islands had more of a nitrogen isotope that's common in marine food sources, which birds commonly consume and then poop out on islands.

"If you step onto an island with rats, there's next to no seabirds".

An extraordinary set of remote tropical islands in the central Indian Ocean, the Chagos islands provided a ideal "laboratory" setting as some of the islands are rat-free, while others are infested with black rats - thought to have been introduced in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

In Australia, native birds and wildlife have been ravaged by a number introduced species, including rats and authors of the paper conclude that eradicating island rat infestations should be a priority for environmental conservationists.

"This is one of the clearest examples so far, where eradicating rats will lead to increased numbers of seabirds and this will bolster the coral reef", coauthor Nick Graham of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom tells the BBC.

Invasive predators such as rats - which feed on bird eggs, chicks, and even adults birds - are estimated to have decimated seabird populations within 90% of the world's temperate and tropical island groups, but until now the extent of their impact on surrounding coral reefs wasn't known.

In total, they found that seabird densities were 760 times higher on the islands which did not have rats and that translated into the production of 250 times more nitrogen.

"Getting rid of the rats would be likely to benefit terrestrial ecosystems and enhance coral reef productivity and functioning by restoring seabird derived nutrient subsidies from large areas of ocean".

Professor Graham said: "We also found that fish on the reefs adjacent to islands with seabirds were growing faster and were larger for their age than the fish on reefs next to rat-infested islands".

They found more amounts of heavy nitrogen in the soil of rat-free island where the bird populations still thrive, as well as in the sponges, algae, and fish in reefs surrounding those islands. "For these invasive rats, that time is now".

Graham said that the results of the study show that rat eradication needs to be a high conservation priority on oceanic islands.

The reefs and their abundance of marine life provide livelihoods for millions of people around the world, so the decline in coral reefs is poised to become a humanitarian crisis.

Nancy Knowlton, a professor of Zoology at the Smithsonian Institution said the findings "added rats to the list of dangers to reefs".

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