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Samoan islands have more species of seabirds than any other type of wildlife

The Natural History Guide to American Samoa says there may be more species of seabirds than any other type of wildlife in the Samoan islands. The trouble is, we don’t actually know how many species we have! Twenty-nine species are listed in the Natural History Guide, but some of these may be accidental or unconfirmed; so in reality, we may have more— or fewer —species.


Chief Wildlife Biologist Dr. N. Suzanne Dauphine of the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) oversees the local seabird research and says the University of Hawai’i (UH) seabird contract is on its last American Samoa Government (ASG) signature — “so hopefully we'll be clear to continue our seabird research very soon.”


Earlier this year in January, DMWR Director Dr. Ruth Matagi-Tofiga signed the collaborative agreement with the University of Hawai’i that will make further progress on DMWR’s seabird research possible. UH collaborators signed the agreement immediately afterwards.


The seabird research is fully funded by the federal government, through a State Wildlife Grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to DMWR’s Wildlife Division. DMWR’s seabird research will continue as soon as the final approval for the UH collaborative agreement is given by the American Samoa Government.


“This will allow UH seabird researcher Andrew Titmus to return to American Samoa to continue leading seabird surveys and other research in collaboration with DMWR staff biologists,” Dr. Dauphine explained. “We are eager to move forward with this exciting project and provide further updates along the way.”


In an email correspondence to Samoa News last week, Dr. Dauphine said seabirds are probably best known to Samoans as fellow fishermen, because Samoan fishermen traditionally used foraging flocks of seabirds to locate fish, and they still use this method today.


She said the only way to find out for sure how many species of seabirds there are in American Samoa — and what their status is — is to conduct systematic seabird surveys.


The good news is, DMWR has a project underway to do just that, including estimating seabird population sizes and identifying whether they are visiting (migrating) or residents (breeding).


Dr. Dauphine explained that in the past, DMWR’s seabird surveys were intermittent, but last year, DMWR began working on a plan to conduct an overall assessment of seabird species and populations on all the islands of American Samoa, largely through a collaborative agreement with the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.


She said the first research that was carried out as part of the plan took place last September, when DMWR began collaborating with University of Hawai’i graduate student Andrew Titmus, a seabird expert with years of research experience in the Pacific Islands.


Titmus joined the DMWR research expedition to Swains Island in September 2012 and conducted at-sea and island surveys for seabirds, working together with DMWR staff biologists.


According to Dr. Dauphine, Titmus identified nine seabird species on Swains Island and found evidence of breeding for three species. Following the Swains Island surveys, DMWR staff biologist Mark MacDonald joined the US Fish and Wildlife Service expedition to Rose Island last month.


MacDonald conducted seabird surveys with Rose Island National Wildlife Refuge Manager Frank Pendleton and together, the pair found nine seabird species on Rose Island, along with evidence of breeding for six species.


On Swains Island, boobies (fua’o) and noddies (gogo) nest primarily in trees, while on Rose Island, most seabirds nest on the ground. One important difference between the breeding seabirds in Swains Island and Rose Island is that Swains Island unfortunately features a large introduced rat population, whereas introduced rats were eradicated on Rose Island thanks to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.


“Why does this matter?” Dr. Dauphine replies: “Because rats eat seabird eggs and chicks! Eliminating rats and other introduced predators makes a life-or-death difference for seabirds and their chicks. To avoid predators and people, many seabirds on Tutuila and in the Manu’a Islands nest on high cliffs, tiny offshore islets, and other places that are difficult to reach without wings.”


 Perhaps most surprisingly, Dr. Dauphine points out, some seabirds in American Samoa nest on mountain tops! In fact, several seabird species are known to breed on the summit of Mount Latta in Ta’u, Manu’a — which is the highest point in American Samoa.


“These include species DMWR plans to study as part of its collaboration with the University of Hawai’i, and specifically through support and collaboration with seabird researcher and UH graduate student Andrew Titmus,“ Dr. Dauphine told the Samoa News.


“We also plan to work with Titmus to conduct systematic surveys in the Manu’a Islands as well as Tutuila and Aunu’u, so that within the next year, we’ll be able to produce a report including species counts and population estimates for all the seabirds in American Samoa.”


More information on the seabird research project can be obtained by contacting Dr. Dauphine directly at 633-4456.