Albatrosses: the laziest ocean birds?

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Bioenergetics for management and conservation is a section of the Evolutionary dynamics and management application course at University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour (Anglet, France). In this course, 2nd

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Albatrosses: the laziest ocean birds?by Manon Yerle

Published by Charlotte Recapet the July 8, 2019 on 11:51 AM

Movement ecology is a new scientific discipline that studies the movement paradigm in the animal kingdom. The fact is: How foragers choose their hunting technics? Foragers are animals that need searching in wild food resources. Since 1960s foraging theories are studied over the world. It’s known that free-handing animals must maximize their energy gain in order to spend as little as energy possible to find and catch their preys. To better understand how this works, some scientists conducted a study about the foraging strategy of the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans). In this study they integrate instantaneous energy budgets within the movement ecology.


Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) in sit-and-wait (SAW) foraging strategy. Credit: John Harrison

Maybe, you have already heard “albatrosses are always sitting on water”, “albatrosses are lazy birds” …In fact when you see one, most of the time, it’s resting on surface of the water and does NOTHING! Why is it doing that whereas it could be attacked by sharks? Moreover, water is very cold! To answer at this primordial question, the foraging strategy of the wandering albatross was studied and well characterised in the Southern Indian Ocean. Four strategies are known: foraging-in-flight (FII), area-restricted-search (ARS), sit-and-wait (SAW) and resting (RES). Strategies depend on external conditions like weather features or wind, etc… In the study, between 2002 and 2005, during brooding periods, 45 birds were tracked but prey data capture were available only for 18 foraging trips. Over 18 birds, only 5 were studied because they were complete for all data.


Albatross in FII foraging strategy. Credit: John Harrison

Authors assumed that net energy gain equal to energy gain minus energy expenditure. Energy gain is estimated by prey capture data (stomach temperature and digestion time) and conversion factors corresponding to the diet of the wandering albatross. Energy expenditure is estimated with continuous measures of heart rates values during trips. Finally, total trip net energy is estimated by cumulating instantaneous net energy gain along the trip. Assuming external factors (wind speed and angle between flight and wind) affects foraging, they implement the flying cost model to provide energy expenditure estimates.

The most used foraging strategy is sit-and-wait because this strategy is better for the brooding period; they obtained higher net energetic gain when foraging trips are short. So, albatrosses aren’t lazy, but they are searching for food. Are their results available regarding fewer numbers of individuals? In statistical analyses it is assumed that results are available if the number of individuals is higher than 30, which is not the case here.  Moreover, optimal models don’t work in wild life because there is always external factors that prevent it.

Whereas previous studies (Weimerskirch et al. 2005) identified FII strategy as the most optimal for long trips, our study identified another strategy for shorts trips, SAW. In fact, birds need to provision chicks frequently and that requires more energy than during incubation. Breeding stage defines the foraging strategy used. Another study should be managed during the incubation period implementing an instantaneous energy-budget model. Moreover, they should implement internal factors as thermoregulation that is more important in SAW for example. Now, we know how wandering albatrosses choose their foraging strategies. We can ask if SAW really is a good foraging strategy because albatrosses are more vulnerable against predators like tiger sharks.

Cited study: Louzao, M., Wiegand, T., Bartumeus, F. et al. (2014) Coupling instantaneous energy-budget models and behavioural mode analysis to estimate optimal foraging strategy: an example with wandering albatrosses. Mov Ecol 2, 8. doi:10.1186/2051-3933-2-8

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