Foraging ecology of masked boobies (Sula dactylatra) in the world’s largest “oceanic desert”

The South Pacific Gyre has the most hyper-oligotrophic waters in the world and is considered the largest “oceanic desert.” Rapa Nui (Easter Island), located within the South Pacific Gyre, is a breeding ground for masked boobies (Sula dactylatra), which are seabirds with a foraging range that effectively confines them within the gyre. The foraging ecology of this species in the gyre was examined by attaching GPS and time-depth devices to chick-rearing adult birds (9 and 14 birds in 2016 and 2017, respectively) and by collecting regurgitates (18 and 15 samples in 2016 and 2017, respectively). In addition, the birds’ foraging ecology between years was compared. Masked boobies traveled in various directions, dived at unspecific locations, and explored areas < 110 km from the colony. Local environmental conditions were not significantly different between years, and differences in foraging parameters (maximum foraging range, trip duration, and dive depth) were greater among individuals than between years. The foraging characteristics of masked boobies suggest that resources were ephemerally distributed around the colony, with similar abundances across years. Under these conditions, traveling to unspecific locations may increase the area covered and the probability of prey encounter. The spatial and temporal consistencies in environmental conditions explain the uniformity of foraging parameters between years. The ability of masked boobies to exploit ephemerally distributed resources in seascapes like Rapa Nui may help explain its pantropical distribution.


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