Sunday, 23 September, 2018

Tropical islands without rats have healthier coral reefs

Coral Reefs Rat Infestation In Oceanic Islands Deprives Coral Reefs Of Nutrients From Bird Poop
Elijah Vega | 13 July, 2018, 22:56

The nitrogen fuelled the growth of micro-algae, which in turn benefited filter-feeding sponges and fish further up the food chain.

With potential benefits for not only island ecosystems but also nearby coral reefs, eradicating island rat populations to restore seabird-sourced nutrients should be a priority, the authors conclude.

Fish were found to be about 50 percent more abundant in the waters adjacent to rat-free islands.

An extraordinary set of remote tropical islands in the central Indian Ocean, the Chagos islands provided a ideal "laboratory" setting as some of the islands are rat-free, while others are infested with black rats - thought to have been introduced in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The results show that birdlife plays a vital role in the health of corals because their droppings act to fertilize reefs and the sourrounding ecosystems.

With the significant links found between rat presence and coral reef health, the team who spearheaded the study is pushing for the prioritization of eradicating rats from islands.

Scientists assessed the impact of the rodents by comparing neighbouring islands in the Indian Ocean that were either infested or remained rat free.

"Seabirds are crucial to these kinds of islands because they are able to fly to highly productive areas of open ocean to feed", lead author Professor Nick Graham from the Lancaster University in United Kingdom explains in a statement.

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"The islands with no rats are full of birds, they're noisy, the sky is full and they smell - because the guano the birds are depositing back on the island is very pungent".

Bird droppings serve as a natural fertiliser for coral reefs.

Researchers said that rat control should be considered a conservation priority to protect these coral reefs.

"These results not only show the dramatic effect that rats can have on the composition of biological communities, but also on the way these vulnerable ecosystems function (or operate)", said co-author Dr Andrew Hoey from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Australia.

Therefore, there's little wonder that seabirds have learned to avoid these islands and no longer nest here, depriving the ecosystem of the rich nutrients found in guano, Graham told Newsweek.

The unique conditions of this remote group of tropical islands - half of them swarmed by rats and half still pristine - allowed the scientists to make a series of unprecedented observations that ended up leading to an unexpected conclusion.

Professor Graham said: "We also found that fish on the reefs adjacent to islands with seabirds were growing faster and were larger for their age than the fish on reefs next to rat-infested islands". "It could tip the balance for the future survival of these reefs and their ecosystems". "For these invasive rats, that time is now".

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