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Proc Biol Sci. 2018 Apr 25;285(1877). pii: 20180631. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2018.0631.

Sterols and stanols as novel tracers of waterbird population dynamics in freshwater ponds.

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Department of Biology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 6N5.
Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL), Department of Biology, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3N6.
Department of Biology, Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada B4P 2R6.
Department of Biology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 6N5


With the expansion of urban centres in the mid-twentieth century and the post-1970 decrease in pesticides, populations of double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) and ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) around Lake Ontario (Canada and USA) have rapidly rebounded, possibly to unprecedented numbers. Along with the use of traditional palaeolimnological methods (e.g. stable isotopes, biological proxies), we now have the capacity to develop specific markers for directly tracking the presence of waterbirds on nesting islands. Here, we apply the use of lipophilic sterols and stanols from both plant and animal-faecal origins as a reliable technique, independent of traditional isotopic methods, for pinpointing waterbird arrival and population growth over decadal timescales. Sterol and stanol concentrations measured in the guano samples of waterbird species were highly variable within a species and between the three species of waterbirds examined. However, cholesterol was the dominant sterol in guano, and phytosterols were also high in ring-billed gull guano. This variability highlights a specialist piscivorous diet for cormorants compared to a generalist, omnivorous diet for gulls, which may now often include grain and invertebrates from agricultural fields. A ratio that includes cholesterol and sitosterol plus their aerobically reduced products (cholestanol, stigmastanol) best explained the present range of bird abundance across the islands and was significantly correlated to sedimentary δ15N. Overall, we demonstrate the use of sterols and stanols as a direct means for tracking the spatial and temporal presence of waterbirds on islands across Lake Ontario, and probably elsewhere.


cholesterol; palaeolimnological biomarkers; sitosterol; stanols; sterols; waterbirds

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