How the unflappable albatross can travel 10,000 miles in a single journey

 

A A A

Scientists believe they have finally worked out how the mighty albatross – a seabird capable of travelling 10,000 miles in a single journey and circumnavigating the globe in 46 days – manages to fly without expending almost  any energy.

People have long wondered how this master of the skies manages to stay aloft for long periods without flapping its enormous wings, which can reach up to 3.5 metres across.

Various theories were developed but researchers now believe they have cracked the problem after attaching highly sensitive GPS trackers to a group of 16 wandering albatross, one of the largest species, in the Indian Ocean.

This enabled the scientists to measure each bird’s position 10 times a second and to within a few centimetres, providing a detailed record of their flight path.

They found that albatrosses perform a “highly dynamic manoeuvre” that involves gaining height by angling their wings while flying into the wind, then turning and swooping along for up to 100 metres. They were recorded as flying at speeds as high as 67mph.

By repeatedly using this method, they can travel thousands of miles depending on the wind conditions. But they are not simply being blown along — they can actually fly much faster than the windspeed, about three times as fast in one example.

Aerospace engineer Gottfried Sachs, co-author of a paper about the research in this month’s Journal of Experimental Biology, said this “dynamic soaring” technique has been observed before, but never fully understood. Some experts thought the birds might use updraft from waves in order to stay airborne.

“This type of flying manoeuvre is so fascinating to look at. The birds have a beautiful  form when they stretch out their wings.

“There is a great elegance in their appearance as well as in their kind of flying,” said Professor Sachs, who works at the Munich Technical University in Germany.

“People have observed the birds and were very impressed because it is such a fascinating manoeuvre. They were of course thinking, how did the bird manage this type of flying without flapping its wings. There were various theories… we think this question is  now clarified.”

Nasa has looked at dynamic soaring as way to power unmanned aircraft that could carry out atmospheric and oceanic research or monitor fisheries for months at a time.

Grahame Madge of the RSPB said the new study was “yet further confirmation that albatrosses are supremely adapted for the environment in which they inhabit”.

However, he said that while the albatross had existed for about 50 million years, all 22 species are now in trouble. Eight are critically endangered, nine are classed as vulnerable and the remaining five are likely to become endangered, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The problem is that the birds are inadvertently caught by fishing vessels using  baited longlines.

It is estimated that this kills more than 100,000 albatrosses a year – about one every  five minutes.

“It’s only really in the past century or so that their numbers have begun to decline rapidly. The rate at which they are being caught in  fisheries… means that they are losing quite a lot of their population each year,”  Mr Madge said.

Factfile: The albatross

Albatrosses can live to 60 years and beyond.

They mate for life and some do not find another if their partner dies.

They have the longest wingspan of any bird, reaching up to 3.5m (11.5ft).

In 2005, it was found that a grey-headed albatross had flown 13,670 miles around the world in the Southern Hemisphere in 46 days.

Large albatross species can spend up to five years at sea.

Albatrosses were once hunted for their feathers, which were used to make hats.

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the  Ancient Mariner, the killing of a “harmless albatross” dooms the ship’s crew.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 3 Welsh Teacher vacancy in Penarth

£110 - £120 per day + Travel Scheme and Free training: Randstad Education Card...

Senior Developer - HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, VBA, SQL

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are working with one o...

Male Behaviour Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

£450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz