Ecosystem recharge by volcanic dust drives broad-scale variation in bird abundance

Tomas Gunnarsson, Ólafur Árnalds, Graham Appleton, Verónica Méndez, Jenny Gill

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Across the globe, deserts and volcanic eruptions produce large volumes of atmospheric dust, and the amount of dust is predicted to increase with global warming. The effects of long-distance airborne dust inputs on ecosystem productivity are potentially far-reaching but have primarily been measured in soil and plants. Airborne dust could also drive distribution and abundance at higher trophic levels, but opportunities to explore these relationships are rare. Here we use Iceland's steep dust deposition gradients to assess the influence of dust on the distribution and abundance of internationally important ground-nesting bird populations. Surveys of the abundance of breeding birds at 729 locations throughout lowland Iceland were used to explore the influence of dust deposition on bird abundance in agricultural, dry, and wet habitats. Dust deposition had a strong positive effect on bird abundance across Iceland in dry and wet habitats, but not in agricultural land where nutrient levels are managed. The abundance of breeding waders, the dominant group of terrestrial birds in Iceland, tripled on average between the lowest and highest dust deposition classes in both wet and dry habitats. The deposition and redistribution of volcanic materials can have powerful impacts in terrestrial ecosystems and can be a major driver of the abundance of higher trophic-level organisms at broad spatial scales. The impacts of volcanic ash deposition during eruptions and subsequent redistribution of unstable volcanic materials are strong enough to override effects of underlying variation in organic matter and clay content on ecosystem fertility. Global rates of atmospheric dust deposition are likely to increase with increasing desertification and glacier retreat, and this study demonstrates that the effects on ecosystems are likely to be far-reaching, both in terms of spatial scales and ecosystem components.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2386–2396
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number12
Early online date25 May 2015
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015


  • Atmospheric dust
  • bird abundance
  • desertification
  • ecosystem recharge
  • ecosystems
  • global warming
  • shorebirds
  • volcanic dust

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