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THE IMPACT OF REFUSE ON THE KELP GULL (LARUS DOMINICANUS) IN THE RÍO DE LA PLATA ESTUARY, URUGUAY
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Modern economic activities, like industry and agriculture, as well as household activities, generate an important amount of refuse. The way we collect, transport, and dispose it will determine the level of environmental contamination. May animals exploit refuse as a food source (i.e., anthropogenic food subsidy) and gulls are the most important group. Refuse subsidizes energetically gull populations, which impacts on their acquisition and allocation of resources, as well as on the environment, with ecological and evolutionary consequences are not well understood. In this dissertation we evaluated potential impacts of refuse on gulls by doing a literature review as well as empirical research on the Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus) in the Rio de la Plata Estuary in South America. Direct and indirect impacts of refuse on gull species and the environment have been observed during the review process. We have detected positive impacts of refuse on body size, chick growth, fecundity, reproductive success, and population dynamics. However, negative impacts were also found focusing on fecundity, reproductive success, and population dynamics. Indirect negative impacts on other species, water bodies, and airport security were also found. Refuse produces numerous impacts on gulls at the individual, population, and species levels, with indirect negative consequences on ecosystems. There is a need to reduce the access of gulls to sources of refuse to mitigate the existing and potential conflicts with human activities and other species, especially those that are threatened and endangered. During our empirical research we found that refuse was ingested and assimilated by Kelp Gull chicks during the chick rearing period and that the ecological niche width increased with the age of the chick. We propose that parents incorporate isotopically unique food sources to nestling’s diet during their growth, increasing isotopic diversity of nestlings. Additionally, we found that refuse could affect foraging decisions of females during the pre-incubation period, which could positively affect future fecundity and negatively impact reproductive success. We found also that refuse consumption on fecundity and reproductive success of gulls is generally studied at the colony level, using conventional diet techniques, but not much has been done using stable isotopes at the individual level, making comparisons among studies and conclusions difficult to address. We encourage other researchers to continue incorporating the isotopic ecology perspective to study the effect of food subsidies on gulls. Additionally, we found that Kelp Gull on the coast of the Rio de la Plata Estuary ingest plastic debris. We conclude that plastic bags and plastic films might be the most important source of contaminants for the Kelp Gull on the coast of the estuary. Main findings of this dissertation suggests the need for an improvement of waste management practices and a regulation of plastic production and use in Uruguay to reduce plastic ingestion by gulls. Finally, next steps for research are provided in this important area of environmental science and natural resource management.