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Nest site competition and personality in a growing barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) population

In this project I aim to study how individual barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) compete for nest-sites on their breeding islands after arrival from migration, and whether traits as nest-defence behaviour could be selected upon with increasing breeding density.

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Project date

Starts
2017-06-02

Ends
2018-08-20

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Project type

  • field work
  • long-term monitoring

Discipline

  • terrestrial biology

Project Keywords

  • biosphere / ecological dynamics / species/population interactions
  • biosphere / terrestrial ecosystems / alpine/tundra
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Summary

Many goose populations in Europe and North America have increased dramatically over the last decades (e.g. Jefferies, Rockwell & Abraham 2003; Fox et al. 2010). One of the populations in Europe that has shown a remarkable growth, is the barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) population that breeds on Spitsbergen (Svalbard) and overwinters in the Solway Firth estuary on the border between England and Scotland (Black, Prop & Larsson 2014). This population was near extinction in the 1950s but increased rapidly after protective measures had been taken to an estimated 30,000 individuals nowadays (Black et al. 2014). In Kongsfjorden, Spitsbergen, the barnacle goose colony has been intensively studied since its rapid growth following the first establishment in the early 1980s’ (see Loonen et al. 1998). The barnacle geese in Kongsfjorden mainly breed on islands in the fjord likely to avoid predation by arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) (Black et al. 2014). For many species, increasing densities lead to more fights between birds in the periods when breeding territories are being established and during breeding (e.g. Ewaschuk & Boag 1972; Bukacinska & Bukacinski 1993; Williams, Lawton & Lawton 1994). As a consequence, individuals can be displaced from their nest territories with large individual fitness effects and even negative effects on the breeding population can occur as fighting uses up time and energy (Kokko, Harris & Wanless 2004). It is proposed that under different densities some personalities (i.e. correlated behavioural traits that are consistent across contexts) are selected over others as they are better able to cope with differing densities, leading to personality variation in populations over time (Le Galliard, Paquet & Mugabo 2015; Nicolaus et al. 2016). This has been formulated in two hypotheses: 1) “the competitive advantage hypothesis”; fast-explorers with more aggressive phenotypes are expected to have a higher fitness under relatively high densities and slow-explorers with less aggressive phenotypes under relatively low density and, 2) “ the pace-of-life hypothesis”; individuals with a fast pace-of-life are expected to do less well under high densities because of high costs of social defeat while individuals with a slow pace-of-life do better (Nicolaus et al. 2016). For the barnacle goose population in Kongsfjorden data has been collected on goose nest-site defence behaviour while breeding since 2004 (Margje de Jong & Maarten Loonen). Earlier studies in other bird species have shown that levels of nest defence show a strong positive correlation with traits as aggression and exploration (Hollander et al. 2008; Carrillo & González-Dávila 2013). This dataset would thus provide an excellent opportunity to study changes in goose personality with increasing population density. It is our aim to investigate whether 1) nest defence behaviour can be classified as a personality trait for barnacle geese and 2) investigate the relevance of the nest defence behaviour in a broad ecological context.

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