We used 116 years of floral and faunal records from Mandarte Island, British Columbia, Canada, to estimate the indirect effects of humans on plant communities via their effects on the population size of a surface-nesting, colonial seabird, the Glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens). Comparing current to historical records revealed 18 extirpations of native plant species (32% of species historically present), 31 exotic species introductions, and one case of exotic introduction followed by extirpation. Contemporary surveys indicated that native species cover declined dramatically from 1986 to 2006, coincident with the extirpation of ‘old-growth’ conifers. Because vegetation change co-occurred with an increasing gull population locally and regionally, we tested several predictions from the hypothesis that the presence and activities of seabirds help to explain those changes. Specifically, we predicted that on Mandarte and nearby islands with gull colonies, we should observe higher nutrient loading and exotic plant species richness and cover than on nearby islands without gull colonies, as a consequence of competitive dominance in species adapted to high soil nitrogen and trampling. As predicted, we found that native plant species cover and richness were lower, and exotic species cover and richness higher, on islands with versus without gull colonies. In addition, we found that soil carbon and nitrogen on islands with nesting gulls were positively related to soil depth and exotic species richness and cover across plots and islands. Our results support earlier suggestions that nesting seabirds can drive rapid change in insular plant communities by increasing nutrients and disturbing vegetation, and that human activities that affect seabird abundance may therefore indirectly affect plant community composition on islands with seabird colonies.
Lameris, T. K., Bennett, J. R., Blight, L. K., Giesen, M., Janssen, M. H., Schaminée, J. J. H. J., & Arcese, P. (2016). A century of ecosystem change: human and seabird impacts on plant species extirpation and invasion on islands. PeerJ, 4, [e2208]. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2208