Tree ring growth and stable isotopes as potential indicators of historical seabird activities on forested islands in coastal British Columbia

T. E. Reimchen, S. McGehee, B. W. Glickman


We examined yearly rings from increment cores of conifers on two seabird nesting islands (one in the Lucy Islands and one in the Rankine Islands, British Columbia), to determine whether trees contained signatures of historical activity of seabirds. Ten conifers (primarily Sitka Spruce, Picea sitchensis), ranging from 56 cm to 127 cm diameter (average 90 cm) and ranging from 70 to 232 years in age (average 132 years of age), were cored across a 200-m gradient in densities of seabird burrows. At the site in the lucy Islands, annual growth was highest (8–14 mm) in the trees with the highest seabird burrow densities and highest in the earliest rings (~1930), which were followed by a fluctuating reduction down to ~2 mm/year in the year 2000, but with a secondary elevated growth period in the 1970s. Adjacent control trees without seabird burrows had a growth rate of ~2 mm/year throughout the same period. At the site in the Rankine Islands, growth rates were also variable and exhibited a 10–15 year non-synchronous periodicity, with the highest growths in the location with high seabird burrow density. Nitrogen isotope signatures (δ15N), which are greatly elevated in seabird guano, ranged from minus 3.9% to 17.4% among tree rings (n = 245 rings) and were positively correlated to percentage nitrogen in rings, average ring growth, and burrow densities. Using these methods, we infer from our tree ring data that seabird activity declined on the lucy Islands over a 70-year period and that the combination of growth, nitrogen isotopic signatures, and percentage nitrogen in tree rings as well a more detailed sampling grid of target and adjacent control trees will provide seabird biologists with additional tools for evaluating spatial and historical trends in seabird activity on forested islands.


Alcidae; Picea sitchensis; Sitka Spruce; Rhinoceros Auklet; Cerorhinca monocerata; Cassin’s Auklet; Ptychoramphus aleuticus; burrows; colony; historical activity; percentage nitrogen; stable isotopes; tree rings; British Columbia

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