Environmental Impacts on the Population Dynamics of a Tropical Seabird in the Context of Climate Change: Improving Inference through Hierarchical Modeling
Under the increasing threat of climate change, it is imperative to understand the impact that environmental phenomena have on the demography and behavior of natural populations. In the last few decades an ever increasing body of research has documented dramatic changes in mortality rates and breeding phenology for a large number of species. A number of these have been attributed to the current trends in climate change, which have been particularly conspicuous in bird populations. However, datasets associated to these natural populations as well as to the environmental variables that affect their biology tend to be partial and incomplete. Thus, ecological research faces the urgent need to tackle these questions while at the same time develop inferential models that can handle the complex structure of these datasets and their associated uncertainty. Therefore, my dissertation research has focused on two main objectives: 1) to understand the relationship that demographic rates and breeding phenology of a colony of seabirds has with the environment in the context of climate change; and 2) to use and develop models that can encompass the complex structure of these natural systems, while also extending the process not only to inference but to building predictions. I divided this work in three research projects; for the first one I developed a hierarchical Bayesian model for age-specific survival for long lived species with capture-recapture data that allows the use of incomplete data (i.e. left-truncated and right-censored), and builds predictions of years of birth and death for all individuals while also drawing inference on the survivorship function. I compared this method to more traditional ones and address their limitations and advantages. My second research chapter makes use of this method to determine the age-specific survivorship of the Dry Tortugas sooty tern population, and explores the effect of changes in sea surface temperature on their cohort mortality rates. Finally, my third research chapter addresses the dramatic shift in breeding season experienced by the Dry Tortugas sooty tern colony, the most unprecedented shift reported for any bird species. I explore the role of climatic and weather variables as triggering mechanisms.
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