Food availability, which is often seasonal, is regarded as a key factor in the breeding success of seabirds. In oceanic tropical areas, the resources are mostly patchy and ephemeral at the surface, and the seasonality is less marked than at higher latitudes. Such a situation influences greatly the breeding strategies of the oceanic seabird species. We conducted a comparative study of the breeding phenology of the sooty tern (Sterna fuscata) in relation to the local and regional oceanographic conditions around the four major colonies (Europa, Juan de Nova, Lys and Bird Islands) of the southwest Indian Ocean. Over the 1997-2003 period, around all the studied locations, the sea-surface temperature (SST) and the chlorophyll concentration in the Mozambique Channel and the Seychelles area showed clear seasonal differences related to the southern climate and the monsoon phenomena. The breeding activity is synchronized at each studied colony, but the timings are very different. Seasonal reproduction occurs in austral winter at Europa and Bird Island and in austral summer at Juan de Nova; at Lys Island the reproduction is non-seasonal. For the seasonal colonies, there is a large monthly change in SST just before the beginning of reproduction, which is a proxy indicating the annual phytoplankton bloom. This variation is accompanied by the development of oceanic features such as fronts that favour aggregation of prey, and may also play an important role in the presence of schools of surface tuna, which are very important for the foraging success of sooty terns. Conversely, around Lys Island the seasonal variations of the marine environment do not lead to pronounced development of oceanic structures, and consequently, the longer-lasting phytoplankton bloom could explain the non-seasonal breeding regime there. Further studies will help discern the advantages and disadvantages of seasonal and non-seasonal reproduction regime in response to unpredictable fluctuations of the marine environment
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