A recent study from Japan has revealed the extraordinary journey of a seabird caught in a typhoon. The sheer resilience exhibited by this bird offers a profound look into the challenges and adaptations seabirds could face in a changing climate.
The research was conducted by Kozue Shiomi, a seabird biologist at Tohoku University. The findings suggest that the rise in severe weather conditions due to climate change could push seabirds to their limits.
In August 2019, Shiomi fitted 14 adult seabirds from a nesting colony on Mikurajima, an island near Tokyo, with GPS bio-loggers. The goal was to study the homing behavior of streaked shearwaters.
The following month, Typhoon Faxai hit southeastern Japan with winds speeds of nearly 200 kilometers per hour. The typhoon inadvertently provided scientists with an unprecedented opportunity to understand how seabirds endure extreme storm conditions – which they will encounter more frequently in the future due to climate change.
The tracking data revealed that while several of the tagged shearwaters managed to sidestep the typhoon, one male shearwater seabird was not as fortunate.
In a span of 11 hours, this bird completed five comprehensive circular loops – each ranging from 50 to 80 kilometers in diameter – over a total distance of 1,146 kilometers.
While these birds usually fly at speeds of 10-60 km/hr and maintain altitudes under 100 meters, the tracked shearwater exhibited speeds of 90-170 km/hr, reaching heights of up to 4,700 meters. The typhoon swept this bird over mainland Japan before redirecting it back over the Pacific.
According to the researchers, it is possible that the shearwater willingly chose to ride out the storm instead of trying to escape. This may be the case, considering that the bird’s natural low-altitude flying strategy over the ocean would place it at heightened risk of colliding with infrastructures over land.
Different seabirds adopt varied tactics when faced with storms. For instance, red-footed boobies and great frigatebirds ascend to high altitudes, allowing storms to pass underneath, while Eastern brown pelicans tend to stay grounded until conditions become favorable. Some even choose to remain within the storm’s eye, where the turmoil is relatively subdued.
As Shiomi notes, improving our understanding of how oceangoing birds cope with extreme weather will provide essential insight into the response – and resilience – of seabirds to the increasingly adverse environmental conditions expected under future climates.
The streaked shearwater, known scientifically as Calonectris leucomelas, is a fascinating seabird with distinct characteristics and behaviors.
Streaked shearwaters have a large, robust build with long wings and a wedge-shaped tail. They boast a brownish-gray upper body and a lighter, often white, underside. Their name stems from the streaked pattern on their neck and underparts.
These birds primarily breed on the islands of Japan and South Korea. Outside the breeding season, they are highly migratory and can be found across the northwestern Pacific, ranging from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the coasts of China and even as far south as Australia.
Streaked shearwaters predominantly feed on fish and squid. They often follow ships and larger marine predators like whales to feed on the fish they stir up. Their feeding strategy involves a combination of skimming the water’s surface and plunge-diving to capture their prey.
They typically nest in burrows on isolated islands. After laying a single egg, both parents share incubation duties. The chick, once hatched, is fed by both parents until it’s ready to fledge.
Like many other shearwaters, the streaked shearwater is pelagic, meaning it spends a significant portion of its life out at sea. They are known for their dynamic flight patterns, which involve a combination of rapid flapping and long, soaring glides.
While streaked shearwaters are not currently considered endangered, they face threats from habitat loss due to human development, predation by introduced species on breeding islands, and bycatch in fisheries.
The study is published in the journal Ecology.
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