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Some seabirds fly into the eye of the storm to survive

Pelagic seabirds, which spend most of their lives in the ocean, are in many ways still mysterious compared to our land dwelling species. Direct observation of these birds is challenging, except for the brief window of time when they venture onto land for nesting and rearing chicks. 

A new study from Swansea University in the UK opens a window into one aspect of pelagic seabird life – how they survive storms. The research was specifically focused on shearwaters in the Sea of Japan. 

The team was led by Professor Emily Shepard and Dr. Emmanouil Lempidakis, from Swansea and included scientists from Nagoya University, the University of Leeds, and Nagoya Institute of Technology. The researchers tagged adult shearwaters with GPS trackers over a period of 11 years.   

When the GPS data was analyzed and compared to wind movement, the team was surprised by what they found. It appeared that the shearwaters were heading into the eyes of storms. 

“We were astonished when we saw from the GPS tracks that shearwaters were flying towards the eye of the storm, and sometimes tracking it for several hours. This is unlike any response to storms that has been seen before in seabirds,” said Professor Shepard.

The scientists believe that the shearwaters are exhibiting this behavior to avoid being blown to land and possibly injured or killed. 

“Shearwaters, like albatrosses, are adapted to windy conditions, as their flight style enables them to fly without much flapping when it’s windy, but there comes a point where their flight speed cannot match the wind speed,” explained Dr. Lempidakis. “When this happens birds start to drift with the wind, which is why we were surprised that they fly towards some of the strongest typhoon winds.”

The researchers found that some birds avoided storms by flying around the edges, but only when they were far out at sea with no danger of striking land. This behavior could explain why many young birds wash up after storms. These birds simply don’t have the experience to know where land is located. 

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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