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Feather “fingerprints” reveal secrets of endangered seabirds

With the largest wingspan of any living bird on Earth, the Wandering Albatross is a spectacular creature. Unfortunately, like many other tube-nosed bird species, it is currently under threat of extinction. Now, a team of scientists led by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the University of South Australia (UNISA) has found that the feathers of seabirds such as the albatross can provide clues about their long-distance foraging, which could protect these endangered species from further decline.

The experts compared 15 element concentrations in the feathers of 253 tube-nosed seabirds from the Southern Hemisphere, representing a total of 15 species. The analysis revealed that the feathers of large seabirds (weighing over 400 grams) such as the Wandering Albatross contained nutrients which did not match the availability of nutrients from their habitats. By contrast, smaller birds which foraged more locally had feathers with trace element concentrations that were 10-to-100-fold higher than those of larger species. These “feather profiles” could help scientists decipher the movements and habitats of open ocean seabirds.

“Small birds that spend a lot of time feeding on planktonic crustaceans in particular areas acquire specific elements from those areas. In contrast, larger birds do not have the same element signature because they forage across multiple ocean basins,” said study co-author Sophie Petit, a wildlife ecologist at UNISA.

“Our work with feathers may explain why species like the Wandering Albatross that breed slowly and that are difficult to study because of their open ocean habits travel over such extraordinary distances. It points at the significance of micronutrient availability and associated ocean processes in the conservation of seabirds.”

Better understanding the factors which affect the distribution of an endangered group of seabirds could help future conservation efforts. “It’s fascinating to think that highly mobile marine animals may be travelling long distances to meet their mineral needs, in addition to their energy needs. But what this also tells us is that we must continue to protect biodiverse marine areas to ensure micronutrient availability for threatened bird species,” said study lead author Lauren Roman, a postdoctoral fellow at CSIRO.

“One of the biggest threats to biodiverse marine areas is climate change, as it has the potential to affect nutrient cycles and distribution across the Southern Ocean. While more research needs to be done, this work expands our ecological knowledge about oceanic species and the significance of micronutrient availability for the survival of seabirds like the Wandering Albatross,” she concluded.

The study is published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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