Coral reefs damaged by ecological effects of rat invasion

Rat Infestation In Oceanic Islands Deprives Coral Reefs Of Nutrients From Bird Poop

In the ocean, the increased nitrogen benefited macroalgae, filter-feeding sponges, turf algae, and fish on the adjacent coral reefs. "Getting rid of the rats would be likely to benefit terrestrial ecosystems and enhance coral reef productivity and functioning by restoring seabird derived nutrient subsidies from large areas of ocean", said Graham.

The rat-free islands were found to have more seabirds, whose waste supplies the soil with abundant nitrogen.

An extraordinary set of remote tropical islands in the central Indian Ocean, the Chagos islands provided a flawless "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.

There are 760 times more seabirds in the rat-free islands - and fish life also thrived with the mass of fishes in the reefs surrounding these islands almost 50 percent greater.

A team working on the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean found that invasive rats on the islands are a "big problem" for coral reefs.

Based on bird abundances, estimated defecation rates and the nitrogen content of droppings, the authors calculate that the birds on rat-free islands deposit about 250 times more nitrogen onto the land than on rat-infested ones.

In the study, researchers compared six rat-infested islands in the Indian Ocean with six nearby islands that are rat-free.

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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".

"This is one of the clearest examples so far, where eradicating rats will lead to increased numbers of seabirds and this will bolster the coral reef", coauthor Nick Graham of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom tells the BBC.

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.

"Until now, we didn't know to what extent this made a difference to adjacent coral reefs", Graham continues. Scientists estimate that rats have actually decimated seabird populations in 90 percent of the islands in the world. Here's how the decimation of seabirds by rodents affects the health of nearby coral reefs.

Researchers said that rat control should be considered a conservation priority to protect these coral reefs. Near the islands where there weren't any rats, grazing and bioerosion of the coral reefs were 3.2 and 3.8 times higher, respectively.

One of the study authors, Associate Professor Aaron MacNeil from Dalhousie University, Canada, said: 'These results show how conservation can sometimes be a bloody business, where doing right by the ecosystem means there is a time to kill. "It could tip the balance for the future survival of these reefs and their ecosystems".

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