Analysis of flight performance in wandering albatrosses yields insights into foraging patterns of different ages and sexes

Santa Cruz, CA--A new study of flight performance in wandering albatrosses reveals significant differences between males and females and between adults and fledglings, and suggests that these differences influence where birds of different ages and sexes forage for food in the open sea.

Few studies of flight performance in birds have looked at differences between males and females. Sexual dimorphism in birds--differences between the sexes in size and appearance--is usually studied in relation to breeding behavior, but in wandering albatrosses it appears to affect flight performance and foraging patterns, said Scott Shaffer, a research biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lead author of the study.

Wandering albatrosses have long been admired as graceful masters of soaring flight. They spend most of their lives at sea, using the wind to travel tremendous distances in search of food. The new study is part of an ongoing research program investigating the physiology and ecology of these magnificent birds. The research involves biologists from UC Santa Cruz in collaboration with Henri Weimerskirch and his colleagues in the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). Weimerskirch has been studying albatrosses for the past 18 years from research stations on Crozet, Kerguelen, and Amsterdam Islands in the southern Indian Ocean, between South Africa and Antarctica.

Shaffer and UCSC professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Daniel Costa began working with Weimerskirch in 1997. Their flight performance study is published in the April issue of the journal Functional Ecology.

At a breeding site for wandering albatrosses in the Crozet Islands, Shaffer made detailed measurements of body size, wingspan, and wing surface area on 56 birds, including adults and fledglings of both sexes. "We found significant morphological differences between males and females, and also between adults and fledglings," Shaffer said.

Contact: Tim Stephens
University of California - Santa Cruz

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