Understanding tern diets using DNA metabarcoding

Through a collaboration with Elizabeth Craig at the Shoals Marine Laboratory, I’m going to be assessing the diets of threatened and endangered terns breeding on the beautiful Isles of Shoals. The islands are a couple of miles off the New Hampshire coastline and represent the state’s only successful breeding colony of common, roseate and arctic terns.

Currently we can identify the prey that adult terns are feeding to their chicks with some keen eyes, as adult terns bring back whole food items in their beaks to feed to their young. But this requires many hours of staring through binoculars and doesn’t tell us anything about what the adult birds are eating when they’re out at sea.

This summer we’re going to be collecting guano from both adults and chicks throughout the breeding season, and then figuring out what they’ve been feeding on from the DNA of the organisms we find in their poop! This is going to be a messy business, but we hope that it will offer a cheaper way to monitor the diets of the terns, and will enable us to figure out what the adult birds are feeding on.

Luckily for us, terns will poop on you if you get close to their nests. Stay tuned for photos of us being dive-bombed and pooped on deliberately in the name of science!

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