The Iles Kerguelen (Kerguelen Islands) are in the south Indian Ocean, 3,300 miles (5,310 km) from the southern tip of Africa, and part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. Kerguelen Island itself is the largest of about 300 islands, islets and reefs in the Kerguelen Archipelago, a sub-antarctic chain of islands of volcanic origin. It has also often been called Desolation Island for the barren, uninhabited landscape.
The islands lie atop the Kerguelen-Gaussberg Ridge and are built up of a thick series of lava flows with deposits of fragmented volcanic rock and some granite.
Source: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas
The island was named after Yves de Kerguelen-Tremarec, a Breton Captain sent by King Louis XV of France in the late 1700’s to search for a massive southern continent that was believed to exist as a “balance” the continents of the northern hemisphere. The Captain himself never set foot on the land, although one of his company did ultimately plant a flag, claiming the archipelago for France in 1772,
The Kerguelen Islands experience a fierce climate, with incessant, howling winds and rain or snow nearly every day. At a latitude of about 49 degrees South, the islands lie in the path of the “Furious Fifties,” a belt of westerly winds that whip around the Southern Hemisphere, mostly unimpeded by land.
The islands were formed over millions of years by a series of lava flows. The perimeter of the large island is carved by fjords, and the rocky landscape is very sparsely vegetated with grasses, mosses, and a plant in the cabbage family. Glaciers are scattered across the island. The largest is Cook Glacier, in the west. The highest point on the island is Mount Ross, which has an elevation of 1,850 meters (6,068 feet); it is also thought to be the youngest volcanic peak on the island. In a handful of fjords, the water appears greenish. The color is probably due to very fine sediment ground down by the enormous friction the glaciers generate as they scrape over the land. Rivers and streams flush this sediment out to the coast.
The primary color of the island is tan, not because the land is dry, but because it is very rocky. Water is abundant, with precipitation falling on average of 300 days a year. Vegetative growth is limited by the rocky land as well as the constant, biting winds. The primary vegetation consists of tussock grass (Poa cooki), mosses, and the Kerguelen cabbage (Pringlea antiscorbutica). The cabbage served as a life-saving source of Vitamin C for early explorers and it has drawn attention for its unique style of cross pollination which relies solely on the island’s winds, because no insects exist on the island.
Despite the challenging climate, several animals and birds make their homes at Kerguelen or use it as a stopping over point in their migrations or during breeding. Among the wildlife on the Kerguelen Islands are several species of penguins, elephant and fur seals, and dozens of species of birds, including terns and albatrosses. The sea makes this “wildlife sanctuary” possible; the islands are located along the Antarctic Convergence Zone, where the icy waters of the Southern Ocean meet the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean. The waters in this mixing area are very rich in nutrients, which support the ocean plants, phytoplankton, which are the foundation of the ocean food web.
A permanent group of 50 to 100 scientists resides at the main base at Port-aux-Francais.
Geographic Coodinates: 49 15 S, 69 35 E
Area: 7,215 sq km
Coastline: 2,800 km
territorial sea: 12 nm
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm
Climate: oceanic, cold, overcast, windy
Terrain: the interior of the large island of Ile Kerguelen is composed of rugged terrain of high mountains, hills, valleys, and plains with a number of peninsulas stretching off its coasts. The highest point is Mont Ross (1,850 m).
Natural Resources: fish, crayfish
Land Use: 100% tossock grass and Kerguelen cabbage
The Iles Kerguelen (Kerguelen Islands) are included within the Southern Indian Ocean Islands tundra ecoregion defined by the World Wildlife Fund which encompasses five island groups in the southern Indian Ocean: Prince Edward, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, and McDonald Islands.
Most of the vascular flora of the islands of the Kerguelen Province are spread throughout the temperate region of the Southern Ocean.
Endemic vascular plants include Poa cookii and Pringlea ascorbutica (both found on all the islands in the ecoregion). P. ascorbutica is the famous Kerguelen cabbage that sailors used to eat to prevent scurvy in days past.
Other endemic vascular plants include Polystichum marionense (only found on the Crozet and Prince Edward Islands), Ranunculus moseleyi (only found on the Prince Edward, Crozet and Kerguelen Islands), Lyallia kerguelensis (only found on the Kerguelen Islands), and Colobanthus kerguelensis (possibly on all the islands).
Other non-endemic, but notable, plant species include Crassula moshata, Aceana magellanica, the cushion-shaped Azorella selago, the feathery Cotula plumosa, and the grass Agrostis magellanica. Among the non-flowering plants, the fern Blechnum penna-marina should be noted.
A number of lichen species are endemic to the ecoregion, but many lichens in this ecoregion are bipolar. Many liverworts are endemic to the ecoregion. Plant distribution patterns indicate a strong relationship between the ecoregion islands, a relationship that has been found in some invertebrate groups as well.
The first thing a casual observer notices about this ecoregion is the overlap of normally sub-Antarctic and normally Antarctic species, from plankton, to fish, to higher predators. One therefore finds on these islands species that may be best suited to one or other of the two environmental regimes, but not necessarily their combination. For instance, the breeding success of the gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) is lowest at its northernmost breeding localities (the Prince Edward and Crozet Islands). This may be because at these relatively northern latitudes the species has to hunt less suitable sub-Antarctic marine prey.
Three of the most obvious sympatric congeneric species in the ecoregion are the two sooty albatrosses (Phoebetria spp.), the two giant petrels (Macronectes spp.) and the two fur seals (Arctocephalus spp.). The sooty albatross (Phoebetria fusca) and the light-mantled sooty albatross (P. palpebrata) breed sympatrically only within this ecoregion i.e., on Marion, the Crozet and the Kerguelen Islands. P. palpebrata, the longest-lived of all birds, normally has a more southerly, Antarctic range than does P. fusca. P. palpebrata from Marion Island, for instance, must therefore fly further south than its congeneric to forage. This places more stress on this species at that locale. In contrast to Marion Island, where its population is much larger than that of P. palpebrata, P. fusca is outnumbered by its congeneric on the Kerguelen Islands. The Kerguelen Islands are, in turn, the most southerly breeding point of the more northern species. Interspecific competition for food and breeding sites between these two congenerics is low or non-existent where they breed sympatrically, and there are no recorded attempts at interbreeding.
However, at times sympatric congenerics do attempt to interbreed. The Northern Giant petrel Macronectes halli and Southern Giant petrel M. giganteus breed sympatrically within the ecoregion, although their sympatric breeding area spreads over a wider range outside of it. Burger and Johnstone reported failed breeding attempts between these two species on Marion and Macquarie Islands respectively (the latter island outside the ecoregion). Although Johnstone et al. remarked that, on islands where sympatric breeding occurs, there is genetic isolation between the two species, they point out that on Gough Island (also outside the ecoregion), Macronectus spp. individuals show a combination of both species’ characteristics. This suggests the ability to interbreed at some sites, although the reasons behind this may be only locally relevant.
A number of birds that breed in the ecoregion have been classified as "Vulnerable". These are:
- Eaton’s pintail (Anas eatoni) (an endemic),
- wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans),
- sooty albatross (Phoebetria fusca),
- Indian yellow-nosed albatross (Thalassarche carteri),
- gray-headed albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma),
- rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome),
- macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus),
- southern giant petrel (Macronectus giganteus) and
- white-chinned petrel (Procellaria aequinoctialis).
Macronectus giganteus and Eudyptes chrysocome may possibly qualify for "Endangered" status, while Phoebetria fusca may even qualify as "Critically Endangered".
Lower risk, but "near threatened" bird species found in the ecoregion are Kerguelen tern (Sterna virgata) (an endemic), northern giant petrel (Macronectus halli), the gray petrel (Procellaria cinerea) (one of the winter breeding petrels), gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua), light-mantled albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata) and black-browed albatross (Thassalarche melanophrys). All albatrosses breeding in this ecoregion have been accorded "vulnerable" or "near threatened" status. Albatrosses have "the highest proportion of threatened species in any bird family that comprises more than a single species".
Other than those species already mentioned above, the following birds also breed in the ecoregion:
- sub-Antarctic skua (Catharacta skua);
- kelp gull (Larus dominicanus);
- fulmar prion (Pachyptila crassirostris),
- Antarctic prion (Pachyptila desolata),
- thin-billed prion (Pachyptila belcheri),
- fairy prion (Pachyptila turtur),
- Antarctic tern (Sterna vittata);
- cape petrel (Daption capense),
- black-bellied storm petrel (Fregetta tropica),
- gray-backed storm petrel (Garrodia nereis),
- blue petrel (Halobaena caerulea),
- Wilson’s storm petrel (Oceanites oceanicus),
- common diving petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix),
- South Georgian diving petrel (Pelecanoides georgicus),
- white-headed petrel (Pterodroma lessonii) and
- soft-plumaged petrel (Pterodroma mollis).
173,000 breeding pairs of king penguin (A. patagonicus) are also found on the Kerguelen Islands. The king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) is unique among penguins, in that it has a breeding cycle that takes longer than a year to complete. The two major predators of the king penguin are the sub-Antarctic skua (Catharacta skua), which takes eggs and small chicks, and the southern giant petrel (Macronectes giganteus), which can take up to 10% of the chicks. The two sibling petrel species, the northern giant petrel (Macronectes halli) and southern giant petrel (M. giganteus) are the largest predator/scavengers in the Southern Ocean ecosystem. Apart from their normal prey of penguins, burrowing petrels, seal carrion, cephalopods, crustaceans and fish, Punta and Herrera have observed them preying on adult imperial cormorants in Argentina, and they have been observed to seasonally access crustacean prey items from the stomachs of their fish and penguins kills at Kerguelen and Crozet Islands, leaving the rest of the original prey item untouched. There is even a recorded instance of a M. giganteus individual killing and partly eating an immature black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) off Newfoundland Head (outside the ecoregion).
Three seals breed in the ecoregion, the southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) and the two fur seals, Arctocephalus gazella and A. tropicalis. A seasonal appearance of leopard seal juveniles was recorded off the Kerguelen Islands between 1982 and 1986, at a locality where a small number of adults are normally present throughout the year.
There may be competition for food between the subantarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus tropicalis) and the southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) at certain sites within the ecoregion, for example Marion Island. Both fur seals are increasing in numbers throughout their ranges since sealing ceased, and at Crozet it is reported that both species’ populations are reaching their maximum possible growth rate. These seals were once driven to the brink of extinction by hunting. Interestingly, there exists a large breeding colony of the antarctic fur seal (A. gazella) on Îles Leygues of the Kerguelen group that was never harvested, which recolonized the main island after exploitation had ended.
The Kerguelen-Heard breeding population of southern elephant seal is one of the three main breeding populations world-wide (the other two being outside the ecoregion. M. leonina individuals from this breeding population have been observed moving between Vestfold Hills, and Amsterdam, Heard and the Kerguelen Islands. M. leonina individuals also move between the Crozet and Prince Edward Islands, but no movements between the Crozet and Kerguelen Islands have been recorded, suggesting that the two populations are isolated from one other. Previous steep population declines of M. leonina at Marion, Prince Edward, Crozet, Kerguelen and Heard Islands appear to have now ended.
Cetaceans associated with this ecoregion include the killer whale (Orca - Orcinus orca). The sei whale and fin whale populations around the Prince Edward, Crozet and Kerguelen Islands have been judged to be from two single stocks.
Types and Severity of Threats
Plant and/or animal aliens have invaded all the islands in the ecoregion, apart from McDonald Island (as far as is known). Some of these invasions have had serious effects.
Some of the most prominent alien plants on one or more of the islands of the ecoregion are Agrostis stolonifera, Poa annua, Poa pratensis, Cerastium fontanum, Rumex acetosella, Sagina apetala and Stellaria medea. Alien plants can, and do, have different effects. Poa annua is an alien plant that has colonized most sub-Antarctic islands.
Attempts have been made to introduce salmonid fish into the rivers of Marion, Crozet, and Kerguelen Islands. The introductions have only been successful on Kerguelen, which has relatively large rivers. The six acclimatized salmonid species, Salmo trutta, Salmo gairdneri, Salmo salar, Salvelinus fontinalis, Salvelinus namaycush and Oncorhynchus kisutch, have colonized diverse environments on Kerguelen. The rivers there have never supported indigenous fish. There has been a marked affect on the invertebrate fauna at Kerguelen by these introduced salmonids. Notwithstanding this fact, feasibility studies have been done on the prospects of farming the coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) at the Kerguelen archipelago. Eggs are imported from the USA and reared for about ten months before release into local rivers. Since 1987, imported eggs and locally collected progeny have been alternately reared and released.
A non-mammalian vertebrate alien, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), also occurs on the Kerguelen Islands.
On the French Islands in this ecoregion, many mammalian invaders are present, five of which were deliberately introduced (cats, rabbits, reindeer, sheep and the Corsican mouflon).
The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) occurs on both French archipelagos, to which it was introduced in the 1800s. It destroys indigenous vegetation (e.g. Pringlea antiscorbutica and Azorella selago), as well as the reproduction sites of burrowing petrels. The main effect of the O. cuniculus is indirect, though, as it provides a food source for cats during winter. This allows the cat population to remain relatively high outside the bird breeding season, resulting in a higher impact on the avifauna the next year.
The two rodents, the house mouse (Mus musculus) and the black rat (Rattus rattus) were both introduced to the Crozet archipelago in the 1800s. Mus musculus was introduced to the Kerguelen archipelago at around the same time as it was at Crozet, but Rattus rattus only found its way to the Kerguelen archipelago in the 1900s. On Crozet, Rattus rattus preys on the chicks and eggs of small petrels, and may have been responsible for the disappearance of the blue petrel (Halobaena caerulea), the gray-backed storm petrel (Garrodia nereis) and the Kerguelen diving petrel (Lugensa brevirostris) on Île de la Possession, to which island the rat is confined. Other petrel species have shown reduced survival on this island. However, those species that are able to breed above 400 meters (m) at Île de la Possession, can do so in large numbers. On Kerguelen, it has been noted that rats are mostly concentrated near the human settlement, and therefore cause little damage to the avifauna there.
Felis catus was introduced in 1956 to the Kerguelen archipelago. As on Marion Island, Felis catus was deliberately introduced to the Kerguelen Islands in an attempt to control rodents. As it did on Marion Island, it preys primarily on burrowing petrels instead, although introduced mice and rabbits do supplement its diet. It has not caused local avifaunal extinctions on the Kerguelen archipelago because bird colonies survive off the main island. Île aux Cochons is the only island of the Crozet archipelago to which Felis catus has been introduced. Felis catus was introduced to this island before 1887, and has subsequently caused the local extinction of the white-chinned petrel (Procellaria aequinoctialis), the gray petrel (Procellaria cinerea), and the gadfly petrels. Felis catus has been specifically linked to the "vulnerable" status accorded the endemic Eaton’s pintail (Anas eatoni), which occurs only on these two French archipelagos (see Table 1). It does not enter the burrows of small petrels, as they are too narrow, and must instead rely on capturing this prey when it arrives or leaves the colony. This allows the smaller Salvin’s prion (Pachyptila salvini), fairy prion (Pachyptila turtur) and South Georgian diving petrel (Pelecanoides georgicus) to remain numerous on Île aux Cochons.
The bizet sheep (Ovis aries) still occurs on the Kerguelen archipelago, where it was introduced in 1952. It is utilized as food for the scientific station. In 1972, various alien fodder grasses were introduced in order to sustain increased numbers of this species. Ovis aries tramples Azorella selago, which is causing that plant’s disappearance. Another plant that is affected by Ovis aries is Pringlea antiscorbutica, which has already been eliminated in areas where either Ovis aries or another alien herbivore, the Corsican mouflon (Ovis ammon musimon), are found.
The Corsican mouflon (Ovis ammon musimon) was introduced to one small island in the Kerguelen archipelago in 1957. Since the 1970s the mouflon has been regularly hunted for sport. O. ammon musimon has suffered from competition for resources with the introduced reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), as well as hunting, but has benefited from the departure of R. tarandus from its original introduction point, as well as the introduction of the fodder grasses mentioned above. R. tarandus was introduced during the 1950s to two islands of the Kerguelen archipelago, from whence all reindeer gradually migrated to Grande Terre. R. tarandus causes significant damage to Azorella selago, which is its main food source. It virtually eliminated lichens in areas where it was found, but having now left those areas, the lichen populations are recovering. There do not appear to be any serious future plans to control R. tarandus, and as a result of this, more ecological damage from this species can be expected.
Chapuis et al. best describe the situation on the French Islands. "The three main rules for introductions defined by Pimm have been broken:
(1) introduction in the absence of predators and competitors;
(2) introduction of highly polyphagous species (herbivores);
(3) introduction in ‘relatively simple communities where the removal of a few plant species will cause the collapse of entire food chains.’"
However, this commentary on the modification of the French territories must conclude by noting that some of the smaller islands within these two archipelagos remain unmodified by alien mammals. The environments of many of these smaller islands have also been afforded legal protection and conservation status.
There is a rapidly expanding long-line fishing industry directed at the Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) in the Southern Ocean, which is marketed as Chilean sea bass. This fish, for which there is an extremely lucrative market, was only discovered and named in the early 1990s. It has a wide range, which covers a number of political zones. Since 1996, there has been widespread illegal fishing of this resource. Many fishing boats fly flags of convenience or are unflagged. Heavily implicated in this illegal fishery are Chilean operators, in which country there exists a highly developed illegal network to process the fish products.
Concentrated numbers of Dissostichus eleginoides are found around sub-Antarctic islands, including Heard and the Prince Edward, Crozet, Kerguelen Islands within the ecoregion. The level of fishing taking place is threatening the sustainability of the resource. At Heard Island, it has been suggested that the D. eleginoides fishery will most likely affect the southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina), which has already seen a dramatic population decrease, possibly due to overfishing around the Kerguelen Islands. Overfishing has been linked to M. leonina population declines elsewhere in the ecoregion, although it should be mentioned again here that the latest studies suggest that Mirounga leonina populations are stabilizing at all sites.
Biologically significant numbers of birds are killed by hooks laid by long-line fisheries. This is especially true of uncontrolled fisheries such as this, where mitigation measures (see below) are obviously not in place. Particularly affected are albatrosses. Diomedea exulans populations at Crozet and Kerguelen have showed a slow increase since 1986, since the Japanese fishing effort for the southern blue tuna (Thunnus maccoyii) was decreased in this region. However, given that younger and more naïve birds would be more affected, there should be a time lag of 5-10 years before a decrease in the wandering albatross’ breeding population is reflected. This suggests that perhaps the consequences of the recently developed intense Dissostichus eleginoides fishery must still be fully reflected by breeding populations of Diomedea exulans. There is some evidence that foraging wandering albatrosses follow the known movements of long-line fishing fleets.
Diving species such as the gray-headed albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma) and particularly the white-chinned petrel (Procellaria aequinoctialis) are very vulnerable to the fishery. Certainly, P. aequinoctialis forms the bulk of the avian by-catch in long-line fisheries. P. aequinoctialis already has a strong natural tendency to follow Orcinus orca pods in order to scavenge from their kills. The black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) also does this, but to a lesser extent. Such natural habits make these pelagic birds more vulnerable to humans mimicking O. orca hunting activity. Studies on Crozet Island have shown that P. aequinoctialis forages widely, and that, during incubation, its average foraging range is the longest recorded for any seabird, foraging well beyond the Southern Ocean. This makes P. aequinoctialis, along with other birds that forage widely, particularly vulnerable to fishing activity outside protected areas. P. aequinoctialis can also forage at night, reducing the effectiveness of nighttime fishing, which has been used in the legal fishery to reduce fishery-induced albatross mortality.
The population declines of Thalassarche melanophrys at the Kerguelen Islands have also been linked to fishing activity, and it too has been recorded as a ship-following species. The fisheries are also a suggested cause for the decline in Phoebetria fusca and Thalassarche carteri populations. Apart from these three albatrosses, it is suspected that the giant petrels (Macronectes spp.) are also being negatively affected by the fishery.
Pollution: Potentially harmful releases of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) into the atmosphere through the burning of plastic waste by island researchers, potential leaks from fuel tanks on island stations, entanglement by and ingestion of fishing debris by the islands’ fauna, and oil pollution (in 1992 about 200 oiled Aptenodytes patagonicus penguins were found on the Crozet archipelago, and in 1980 a Soviet tanker spilt 600 tonnes of petroleum after running aground north of Grande Terre).
Disturbance of King Penguin colonies: Aptenodytes patagonicus are extremely susceptible to noise stress, even showing extreme reactions to thunderstorms. Human-induced examples of this include building activities that took place in the middle of a colony of A. patagonicus on Île de la Possession of the Crozet group, which caused the breeding birds to move elsewhere. It has been suggested that the many King Penguins found dead in 1990 on Macquarie Island (outside the ecoregion) after an aircraft had flown by was caused by panic. Similar panic, although no recorded deaths, has been observed on Marion Island.
Other human activity: Collection of artifacts by island-based personnel and research huts, the latter serving as focal points for the introduction and spread of alien biota.
Global warming: Smith has warned that the effects of climate change on Marion Island could result in opportunities for new organisms to colonize, and affect the breeding success of birds. The same is true of the other sub-Antarctic islands. Also possible is the release of current environmental constraints on already introduced aliens (e.g., Mus musculus on Marion Island). It has also been shown that the breeding performances of some seals and birds in the ecoregion are reduced by El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events.
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