The demographic causes of population change vary across four decades in a long-lived shorebird

Andrew M. Allen (Corresponding author), Eelke Jongejans, Martijn van de Pol, B.J. Ens, M. Frauendorf, M. van der Sluijs, Hans de Kroon

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
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Understanding which factors cause populations to decline begins with identifying which parts of the life cycle, and which vital rates, have changed over time. However, in a world where humans are altering the environment both rapidly and in different ways, the demographic causes of decline likely vary over time. Identifying temporal variation in demographic causes of decline is crucial to assure that conservation actions target current and not past threats. However, this has rarely been studied as it requires long time series. Here we investigate how the demography of a long-lived shorebird (the Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus) has changed in the past four decades, resulting in a shift from stable dynamics to strong declines (−9% per year), and recently back to a modest decline. Since individuals of this species are likely to respond differently to environmental change, we captured individual heterogeneity through three state variables: age, breeding status, and lay date (using integral projection models). Timing of egg-laying explained significant levels of variation in reproduction, with a parabolic relationship of maximal productivity near the average lay date. Reproduction explained most variation in population growth rates, largely due to poor nest success and hatchling survival. However, the demographic causes of decline have also been in flux over the last three decades: hatchling survival was low in the 2000s but improved in the 2010s, while adult survival declined in the 2000s and remains low today. Overall, the joint action of several key demographic variables explain the decline of the oystercatcher, and improvements in a single vital rate cannot halt the decline. Conservations actions will thus need to address threats occurring at different stages of the oystercatcher's life cycle. The dynamic nature of the threat landscape is further supported by the finding that the average individual no longer has the highest performance in the population, and emphasizes how individual heterogeneity in vital rates can play an important role in modulating population growth rates. Our results indicate that understanding population decline in the current era requires disentangling demographic mechanisms, individual variability, and their changes over time.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3615
Issue number4
Early online date2022
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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