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Wind field and sex constrain the flight speeds of central-place foraging albatrosses

By Ewan D. Wakefield, Richard A. Phillips, Jason Matthiopoulos, Akira Fukuda, Hiroyoshi Higuchi, Gareth J. Marshall and Philip N. Trathan


By extracting energy from the highly dynamic wind and wave fields that typify pelagic habitats, albatrosses are able to proceed almost exclusively by gliding flight. Although energetic costs of gliding are low, enabling breeding albatrosses to forage hundreds to thousands of kilometers from their colonies, these and time costs vary with relative wind direction. This causes albatrosses in some areas to route provisioning trips to avoid headwind flight, potentially limiting habitat accessibility during the breeding season. In addition, because female albatrosses have lower wing loadings than males, it has been argued that they are better adapted to flight in light winds, leading to sexual segregation of foraging areas. We used satellite telemetry and immersion logger data to quantify the effects of relative wind speed, sex, breeding stage, and trip stage on the ground speeds (V-g) of four species of Southern Ocean albatrosses breeding at South Georgia. V-g was linearly related to the wind speed component in the direction of flight (V-wf), its effect being greatest on Wandering Albatrosses Diomedea exulans, followed by Black-browed Albatrosses Thalassarche melanophrys, Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses Phoebatria palpebrata, and Gray-headed Albatrosses T. chrysostoma. Ground speeds at V-wf = 0 were similar to airspeeds predicted by aerodynamic theory and were higher in males than in females. However, we found no evidence that this led to sexual segregation, as males and females experienced comparable wind speeds during foraging trips. Black-browed, Gray-headed, and Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses did not engage in direct, uninterrupted bouts of flight on moonless nights, but Wandering Albatrosses attained comparable V-g night and day, regardless of lunar phase. Relative flight direction was more important in determining V-g than absolute wind speed. When birds were less constrained in the middle stage of foraging trips, all species flew predominantly across the wind. However, in some instances, commuting birds encountered headwinds during outward trips and tail winds on their return, with the result that V-g was 1.0-3.4 m/s faster during return trips. This, we hypothesize, could result from constraints imposed by the location of prey resources relative to the colony at South Georgia or could represent an energy optimization strategy

Topics: Zoology, Ecology and Environment
Publisher: Ecological Society of America
Year: 2009
DOI identifier: 10.1890/07-2111.1
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