Taxonomic and conservation status of Oceanodroma storm petrels in the South Atlantic

Project Partners: St Helena Government, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Ascension Island Government, Queens University in Canada and the St Helena National Trust.

Two of the most remote islands in the world, Saint Helena and Ascension Island, are situated in the South Atlantic Ocean. St Helena is 1,200 miles from southern Africa and 1,800 miles from South America. Ascension Island is 810 miles northwest of St Helena. The storm-petrels are the least well-known species of the seabird assemblage of St Helena and Ascension, and have traditionally been viewed as conspecific with Oceanodroma castro which is widespread throughout the North Atlantic and Pacific. However, recent work by two of the project partners on the Oceanodroma castro complex of the North Atlantic has revealed the presence of several “cryptic” species, new to science, that breed on the same islands as O. castro but at different times of year. Published work by St Helena Government and RSPB has revealed similar seasonal breeding populations on St Helena: the South Atlantic populations differ in morphology and vocalisations from those breeding in the North Atlantic. It is therefore probable that endemic, but as yet un-described, storm petrel species exist on St Helena and Ascension. The conservation status of the storm petrels of St Helena and Ascension crucially hinges on a correct understanding of their taxonomic affinities with other Atlantic and Pacific populations of Oceanodroma storm petrels. If these populations are considered sufficiently distinct to warrant classification as one or more new species, their small population size and highly restricted global distribution, would confer high conservation importance on these populations. In order to rigorously assess their taxonomic, and hence conservation status this Darwin Plus funded project will make genetic comparisons with existing data from North Atlantic and Pacific populations, and employ new techniques to survey the seasonal populations on both St Helena and Ascension thus establishing a baseline for longer-term monitoring and informing the development of conservation and management plans.

This project is due to be completed in September 2015, so please watch out for updates on its progress in the near future.