Climate and the Wandering Albatross

By Kennedy Maize

 

Washington, D.C., January 12, 2012 — The ancient English idiom “It’s an ill wind that blows no good” takes on specificity following an article in tomorrow’s Science magazine. The article argues that increased winds in the Southern Ocean, likely caused by a changing global climate, are a boon to the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), the globe’s largest seabird and a noted long-distance traveler.

 

A team led by Henri Weimerskirch of France’s Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé found that as Southern Ocean westerlies have increased recently, the birds’ “rates of travel and flight speeds have increased. Consequently, the duration of foraging trips has decreased, breeding success has improved, and birds have increased in mass by more than 1 kilogram.” In other words, higher winds have made life easier for these pelagic wanderers. This is good news to any bird lover and particularly heart-warming to anyone who has seen these birds in their breeding habitat, as my wife and I did on South Georgia Island last October.

 

Weimerkirsch’s team of ornithologists studied the birds on Possession Island, one of the Crozet islands in the southern Indian Ocean (46°S, 52°E) and part of France’s Antarctic jurisdiction. The population, which today is comprised of 350 breeding pairs, has been monitored annually since 1960. Researchers have been collecting data on size, breeding success and demographics from market birds. They concentrate on the January-February (austral summer) incubation period, when the birds are foraging widely for food and 80% of the breeding failures occur.

Researchers measure and weigh a wandering albatross

 

The researchers found that higher winds in the Southern Ocean have led to an increase in flight speed for the foragers, meaning they could cover more territory and had a much higher chance of finding food in a shorter period of time, with less chance of falling victim to predators. “Wandering albatrosses appear so far to have benefited from wind changes occurring in the Southern Ocean,” says the article in Science, “with higher speeds allowing for more rapid travel….In the 2000s, birds moved quicker than in the 1990s and thus were able to cover similar distances during shorter bouts at sea.”

 

“Seabirds of the World,” the definitive photographic guide by Peter Harrison, notes that “Wandering, Royal and Amsterdam Albatrosses are the largest of all seabirds, with magnificent soaring flight on long, stiffly-held wings. Wandering is a habitual ship follower. Breeds in loose colonies on grassy headlands and plateau of oceanic islands.” A mature wandering albatross has a wingspan in excess of 10 feet. Awkward on land, except for breeding they spent their entire lives on the wing and at sea. Once you have seen one following your ship at sea, you will never forget your encounter with these astonishing avians, which seem to find a changing climate a very good thing indeed.