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A wind-riding bird gets a boost

Wandering albatross landing to return to its nest after a foraging trip.
[Photograph by Christophe Guinet]

The wandering albatross spends most of its life in flight, touching down on land to find food or to breed. These enormous seabirds, which have the largest wingspan of any living bird, conserve energy while aloft by riding the wind currents.

A new study shows that wind speeds seem to be picking up over the Southern Ocean. And, this change is helping the albatrosses that live in this region, by making their flights easier.

Lots of studies have looked at how changes in temperature or precipitation are affecting wildlife as climate warms. In this study, though, Henri Weimerskirch of the Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé in Villiers en Bois, France and colleagues considered wind, which is an especially important part of the environment out at sea.

The researchers analyzed forty year's worth of information on a population of albatrosses living on the windy Crozet islands of the Southern Ocean. For decades, researchers have monitored the birds feeding and breeding, and in 1989 they began outfitting the birds with satellite transmitters to track their travels.

Weimerskirch and colleagues found that a change in wind patterns, probably induced by climate change, increased the speed of the birds' travels and shortened their foraging trips. These shorter trips improved breeding success and allowed the birds to grow larger.

The scientists note in their study, however, that these positive effects may not last if climate warming continues. At some point, the winds could become too fast for the birds, and wind currents they ride are expected to shift poleward, making Crozet a less useful place for foraging.

This research appears in the 13 January 2012 issue of the journal Science.