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Seabirds have different strategies to survive storms

After analyzing over 300,000 hours of flight data from 18 different species, researchers have learned more about how seabird species cope with powerful winds.

The study revealed that birds like the albatross, who live in windier conditions on the Southern Ocean, fly faster than tropical birds, such as the red-tailed tropicbird. This finding was not surprising, since flying faster than the wind is essential for navigation.

However, the question remains about how both birds navigate intense tropical storms. Dr. Emily Shepard of Swansea University explains:

“The situation becomes more complicated when we start to consider what happens in storms because the strongest wind speeds occur over the tropics, not the Southern Ocean. So, while albatrosses can fly in almost all conditions they experience, tropical species must have strategies to cope with cyclones, when winds may be twice what they are able to fly in. This adds to other evidence that tropical seabirds are likely to show long-range avoidance of extreme events.”

Surprisingly, the researchers found that some albatrosses avoided tropical storm winds, even though they flew in similar wind speeds in other scenarios. 

For example, there was the case of an Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross who encountered a storm and avoided the 68 km/h wind speeds by flying in the eye of the storm, where wind speeds were 30 km/h for 12 hours.

“We know that wind-adapted birds like albatrosses fly in very strong winds. What surprised me the most was that even these species avoid strong winds from time to time, and that they can do so by flying into the eye of the storm,” said study first author Elham Nourani of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior.

“As a result of the climate crisis, storms will become more frequent and stronger. So, the question is how seabirds will be impacted by this. Understanding the wind speeds that different species can operate in is a key part of this. What seems like an extreme wind to a tropical species is what an albatross encounters on a near-daily basis, so our definition of extremes needs to vary depending on the species we are talking about.”

This study is published in the journal Current Biology

By Erin Moody, Staff Writer

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