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The Albatross

You will find other descriptions here of Henri Weimerskirch’s work on Albatrosses under Albatrosses on this site as well as Anna Gagliardo’s work on the use of smell in navigation.

A book recently written by Adam Nicholson called “The Seabirds Cry” is fascinating about the mythology and lives of the sea birds in his book; he covers Fulmars, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Gulls, Guillemots, the Cormorant and Shag, the Shearwater, Gannet, the Great Auk and its cousin the Razorbill, and the albatross.

You will see his book reviewed on the home page under “book reviews”

He is a great expert and lover of seabirds and talks about the work that many of scientists working in the animal navigation field have covered.

I particularly like his discussion about the wandering albatrosses and the way that they cannot really operate without the wind to keep them aloft. He quotes Gabrielle Nevitt who discovered that a lot of these Seabirds (including the Albatrosses and Shearwaters use their acute small to find their prey just like the land based vultures). They cruise around until they find the smell the rotting squid, which they feed on, then drop down to take. This is why so many are killed by Tuna long lines bated with squid. They smell the squid, from as much as 15 miles away and then get snared by the hooks and drown. One way of dealing with this menace is to bait the line at night when the albatross sits on the sea and does not hunt. However, bright moonlight nights give the albatross the light they need to fly.

Albatrosses range over the entire southern oceans as they take advantage of the various weather fronts, whose winds take them effortlessly, they lock and hang from their wings gliding using almost no energy with a low pulse rate.

In a New Scientist article (14 October 2017) Abdessattar Abdelkefi and his team from New Mexico State University discovered that the black top sides of the Albatross as opposed to its white underside meant that the top of the bird was heated by about 10C giving the bird added lift.

The birds can use the Northerly winds to take them south and the Westerlies (the roaring 40s) to reach and finally the Southerlies to get home. They are always on the prowl for food but seem to be able to ride the winds to come home to their nesting islands of le Crozet. For an albatross, gliding in high winds takes no effort so a journey of 8000 miles is of nothing to them. Over their lives of up to 80 years they will cover millions of miles.

The question about how they find their home again to breed remains the same mystery as for other wandering and migrating animals. It is certain that Albatrosses and Sheerwaters use their highly developed sense smell to hunt and navigate by. Anna Gagliardo sent some Cory’s Sheer into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and those whose sense of smell was deprived got lost and the others not. But how does the sense of smell help navigate in the ocean where I imagine the location of smells are changing all the time? Of course smell can get them to their breeding places when they are near enough. For me it all to do with the different stages of navigation and how all navigators use as many signals as possible, as well as, different ones at different stages in their journeys.

Richard Nissen
Editor October 2017

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