Dr Steffen Oppel

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

Background

I work as conservation scientist to provide knowledge about the ecology and conservation status of bird species in a wide variety of ecosystems around the world.

The goal of my work is to achieve effective conservation of globally threatened species and their habitats through collaboration with partner organisations in the global network of BirdLife International.

My role is to use robust scientific approaches to monitor populations, identify the causes for population declines, and develop and test effective management solutions that are practically feasible and benefit threatened species.

My current work portfolio includes seabirds, raptors, songbirds, and a wide range of invasive species which threaten the native biodiversity of remote islands.

Partners and Collaboration

  • Peter Ryan, Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology, South Africa
  • Richard Phillips, British Antarctic Survey, UK
  • Evan Buechley, HawkWatch International, USA
  • Maria Dias, Ana Carneiro, Bethany Clark and Lizzie Pearmain, BirdLife International, UK
  • Nick Holmes, The Nature Conservancy, USA
  • Araceli Samaniego, Landcare Research, New Zealand
  • BirdLife partners in Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, North Macedonia, Syria, and Turkey

Contact

Dr Steffen Oppel

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

RSPB Centre of Conservation Science, David Attenborough Building, Pembroke Street, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB2 3QZ

steffen.oppel@rspb.org.uk

@steffopp

Research Gate

Google Scholar

Specialisms

Identifying problems International species Marine New methods and technologies

Selected Publications

Spatial scales of marine conservation management for breeding seabirds

Knowing the spatial scales at which effective management can be implemented is fundamental for conservation planning. This is especially important for mobile species, which can be exposed to threats across large areas, but the space use requirements of different species can vary to an extent that might render some management approaches inefficient.

Here the space use patterns of seabirds were examined to provide guidance on whether conservation management approaches should be tailored for taxonomic groups with different movement characteristics.

Seabird tracking data were synthesised from 5419 adult breeding individuals of 52 species in ten families that were collected in the Atlantic Ocean basin between 1998 and 2017. Two key aspects of spatial distribution were quantified, namely how far seabirds ranged from their colony, and to what extent individuals from the same colony used the same areas at sea.

There was evidence for substantial differences in patterns of space-use among the ten studied seabird families, indicating that several alternative conservation management approaches are needed. Several species exhibited large foraging ranges and little aggregation at sea, indicating that area-based conservation solutions would have to be extremely large to adequately protect such species.

The results highlight that short-ranging and aggregating species such as cormorants, auks, some penguins, and gulls would benefit from conservation approaches at relatively small spatial scales during their breeding season. However, improved regulation of fisheries, bycatch, pollution and other threats over large spatial scales will be needed for wide-ranging and dispersed species such as albatrosses, petrels, storm petrels and frigatebirds.

Date
03 December 2018
RSPB Authors
Dr Steffen Oppel, Dr Mark Bolton, Dr Ellie Owen
Authors
Oppel, S., Bolton, M., Carneiro, A.P.B., Dias, M.P., Green, J.A., Masello, J.F., Phillips, R.A., Owen, E., Quillfeldt, P., Beard, A., Bertrand, S., Blackburn, J., Boersma, P.D., Borges, A., Broderick, A.C., Catry, P., Cleasby, I., Clingham, E., Creuwels, J., Crofts, S., Cuthbert, R.J., Dallmeijer, H., Davies, D., Davies, R., Dilley, B.J., Dinis, H.A., Dossa, J., Dunn, M.J., Efe, M.A., Fayet, A.L., Figueiredo, L., Frederico, A.P., Gjerdrum, C., Godley, B.J., Granadeiro, J.P., Guilford, T., Hamer, K.C., Hazin, C., Hedd, A., Henry, L., Hernandez-Montero, M., Hinke, J., Kokubun, N., Leat, E., Tranquilla, L.M., Metzger, B., Militao, T., Montrond, G., Mullie, W., Padget, O., Pearmain, E.J., Pollet, I.L., Putz, K., Quintana, F., Ratcliffe, N., Ronconi, R.A., Ryan, P.G., Saldanha, S., Shoji, A., Sim, J., Small, C., Soanes, L., Takahashi, A., Trathan, P., Trivelpiece, W., Veen, J., Wakefield, E., Weber, N., Weber, S., Zango, L., Daunt, F., Ito, M., Harris, M.P., Newell, M.A., Wanless, S., Gonzalez-Solis, J. & Croxall, J.
Published in
Marine Policy 98: 37-46
View publication Details

Mouse eradication is required to prevent local extinction of an endangered seabird on an oceanic island

Petrels (Procellariidae) are a highly diverse family of seabirds, many of which are globally threatened due to the impact of invasive species on breeding populations. While predation by invasive cats and rats has led to the extinction of petrel populations, the impact of invasive house mice Mus musculus is slower and less well documented. However, mice impact small burrow-nesting species such as MacGillivray’s prion Pachyptila macgillivrayi, a species classified as endangered because it has been extirpated on islands in the Indian Ocean by introduced rodents.

We use historic abundance data and demographic monitoring data from 2014 to 2020 to predict the population trajectory of MacGillivray’s prion on Gough Island with and without a mouse eradication using a stochastic integrated population model. Given very low annual breeding success (0.01 fledglings per breeding pair in ‘poor’ years (83%) or 0.38 in ‘good’ years (17%), n = 320 nests over 6 years) mainly due to mouse predation, our model predicted that the population collapsed from ~3.5 million pairs in 1956 to an estimated 175,000 pairs in 2020 despite reasonably high adult survival probability (ϕ = 0.901).

Based on these parameters, the population is predicted to decline at a rate of 9% per year over the next 36 years without a mouse eradication, with a 31% probability that by 2057, the MacGillivray’ prion population would become extremely vulnerable to extinction. Our models predict population stability (λ = 1.01) and a lower extinction risk (<10%) if mouse eradication on Gough Island restores annual breeding success to 0.519, which is in line with that of closely related species on predator-free islands.

This study demonstrates the devastating impacts that introduced house mice can have on small burrowing petrels and highlights the urgency to eradicate invasive mammals from oceanic islands.

Date
15 February 2021
RSPB Authors
Dr Steffen Oppel
Authors
Jones, Christopher W Risi, Michelle M Osborne, Alexis M Ryan, Peter G
Published in
Animal Conservation
View publication Details

Differential survival throughout the full annual cycle of a migratory bird presents a life‐history trade‐off

Long-distance migrations are among the most physically demanding feats animals perform. Understanding the potential costs and benefits of such behaviour is a fundamental question in ecology and evolution. A hypothetical cost of migration should be outweighed by higher productivity and/or higher annual survival, but few studies on migratory species have been able to directly quantify patterns of survival throughout the full annual cycle and across the majority of a species’ range.

Here, we use telemetry data from 220 migratory Egyptian vultures Neophron percnopterus, tracked for 3,186 bird months and across approximately 70% of the species’ global distribution, to test for differences in survival throughout the annual cycle.

We estimated monthly survival probability relative to migration and latitude using a multi-event capture–recapture model in a Bayesian framework that accounted for age, origin, subpopulation and the uncertainty of classifying fates from tracking data.

We found lower survival during migration compared to stationary periods (β = −0.816; 95% credible interval: −1.290 to −0.318) and higher survival on non-breeding grounds at southern latitudes (<25°N; β = 0.664; 0.076–1.319) compared to on breeding grounds. Survival was also higher for individuals originating from Western Europe (β = 0.664; 0.110–1.330) as compared to further east in Europe and Asia, and improved with age (β = 0.030; 0.020–0.042). Anthropogenic mortalities accounted for half of the mortalities with a known cause and occurred mainly in northern latitudes. Many juveniles drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on their first autumn migration while there were few confirmed mortalities in the Sahara Desert, indicating that migration barriers are likely species-specific.

Our study advances the understanding of important fitness trade-offs associated with long-distance migration. We conclude that there is lower survival associated with migration, but that this may be offset by higher non-breeding survival at lower latitudes. We found more human-caused mortality farther north, and suggest that increasing anthropogenic mortality could disrupt the delicate migration trade-off balance. Research to investigate further potential benefits of migration (e.g. differential productivity across latitudes) could clarify how migration evolved and how migrants may persist in a rapidly changing world.

Date
30 March 2021
RSPB Authors
Dr Steffen Oppel
Authors
Buechley, Evan R Efrat, Ron Phipps, W Louis Carbonell Alanís, Isidoro Álvarez, Ernesto Andreotti, Alessandro Arkumarev, Volen Berger‐Tal, Oded Bermejo Bermejo, Ana
Published in
Journal of Animal Ecology
View publication Details

Reduction in seabird mortality in Namibian fisheries following the introduction of bycatch regulation

Many industrial activities impose a threat on biodiversity, and it is unclear to what extent environmental regulations can reduce the threat of such activities. Bycatch in industrial fisheries is one of the greatest sources of mortality for seabirds, but a threat for which effective mitigation exists.

Here we quantify whether the introduction of a new regulation that required the use of bird-scaring lines reduced seabird mortality in two of the most hazardous fisheries in the South Atlantic. The Namibian hake demersal trawl and longline fisheries, estimated to be killing 20,000–30,000 birds/year, have been required to use bird-scaring lines since 2015.

We used data from BirdLife International's Albatross Task Force and the Namibian Fisheries Observer Agency to quantify changes in seabird mortality in these fisheries before and after the introduction of these regulations. Our estimated bycatch rates in the longline fleet were 0.468 birds/1000 hooks (95% confidence interval 0.067–1.450) before regulations and 0.004 birds/1000 hooks (0.001–0.013) following their introduction, a 98.4% reduction. Our estimate suggests that 215 (1–751) seabirds were killed across this fleet in 2018 compared to 22,222 (3187–68,786) in 2009.

In the trawl fleet, observers recorded seabird mortality resulting from interactions with trawl cables. The average rate of heavy interactions was 1.09 interactions/h (0.81–1.39) before the regulation came into effect, and 0.49 interactions/h (0.23–0.84) since then. Extrapolations based on the number of observed fatal interactions suggest 1452 (0–3865) birds were killed by this fleet in 2017 compared to 7030 (0–16,374) in 2009. The lower mortality reduction in the trawl fleet is likely due to incomplete implementation of regulations and highlights the importance of adequate enforcement for effective bycatch mitigation.

Overall, we demonstrate that regulations that mandate that well-tested safeguards are used during industrial operations can have enormous benefits for the conservation of threatened species.

Date
01 January 2021
RSPB Authors
Dr Steffen Oppel
Authors
Da Rocha, Nina Prince, Stephanie Matjila, Samantha Shaanika, Titus M Naomab, Clemens Yates, Oliver Paterson, John RB Shimooshili, Kaspar Frans, Ernest
Published in
Biological Conservation 253
View publication Details

Population reinforcement and demographic changes needed to stabilise the population of a migratory vulture

One approach to stabilise small and declining populations is to breed individuals in captivity and release them into the wild to reinforce existing populations while working to reduce threats. Population reinforcement programmes require long-term commitments to be successful and can divert limited resources from other conservation measures. A rigorous evaluation whether reinforcement can stabilise a population is therefore essential to justify investments.

Many migratory species incur high mortality during their first migration, and releasing captive-bred birds at an older age may therefore benefit reinforcement programmes for migratory birds. We examine whether a small and declining population of a long-distance migratory raptor—the Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus—can be stabilised using population reinforcement that reduces mortality during the first migration. We used an integrated population model to evaluate realistic reinforcement and survival improvement scenarios to estimate how many captive-bred birds would need to be released to stabilise the population.

Survival probability of wild juveniles during their first year (0.296; 95% CI 0.234–0.384) was too low for a stable population (population growth rate 0.949; 95% CI 0.940–0.956), but captive-bred juveniles released in their second calendar year had improved survival (0.566; 95% CI 0.265–0.862) during their first year in the wild.

Reinforcement of 15 birds per year for 30 years was insufficient to achieve a neutral or positive population growth rate. However, reinforcement reduced the probability of extinction by 2049 from 48% without reinforcement to <1% if 12 or more birds were released every year for 30 years. A 6% increase in annual survival probability would likely lead to a stable population without any reinforcement.

Synthesis and applications. Although releasing captive-bred birds can reduce high juvenile mortality during first migration and assist in postponing local extinction, further improvements of survival in the wild are required to safeguard a migratory population where threats in the wild will persist for decades despite management.

Date
25 July 2021
RSPB Authors
Dr Steffen Oppel
Authors
Saravia, Victoria Bounas, Anastasios Arkumarev, Volen Kret, Elzbieta Dobrev, Vladimir Dobrev, Dobromir Kordopatis, Panagiotis Skartsi, Theodora Velevski, Metodija
Published in
Journal of Applied Ecology 90 (5): 1228-1238
View publication Details