Flight of the albatross: around the world in 46 days

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The Independent Online

An albatross has flown round the world in just 46 days, according to scientists who spent 18 months studying the birds' migratory behaviour.

An albatross has flown round the world in just 46 days, according to scientists who spent 18 months studying the birds' migratory behaviour.

Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey tracked the movements of 22 grey-headed albatrosses to shed light on where they go in the winter months that they spend away from their breeding colonies off the coast of South Georgia in the south Atlantic.

Some of the birds - mostly females - travelled a relatively modest few thousand miles out to open sea but some of the males went much further, and several made a complete circumpolar navigation. One male albatross flew more than 22,000 kilometres (13,670 miles) around the southern hemisphere in just 46 days. Three birds were tracked flying around the world twice in 18 months.

Albatrosses are very long-lived - some are more than 40 years old - but they are vulnerable to being trapped and drowned in lines used by fishing trawlers.

Professor John Coxall, who led the study, said the findings would help conservationists trying to protect the 19 out of 21 sub-species of the albatross family that are included on the official "red list" of endangered species.

"By understanding where these birds go when they're not breeding, we can brief governments and fishing commissions to impose stricter measures capable of reducing the number of birds killed by between 75 and 95 per cent, depending on the type of fishery," Professor Coxall said. "The right combination of measures will drastically reduce deaths."

The albatrosses in the study had a small device strapped to their legs that continuously monitored the local time of sunrise and sunset. Scientists were able to estimate the position of the bird to within about 200km.

Before this study there was no information about the wintering habits of the grey-headed albatross. Richard Phillips, a member of the study team, said: "We had no idea that so many birds would go so far, that there would be large differences between individuals and that some would even go circumpolar."

Albatrosses often sleep by landing on open water during the night and they can spend many months at sea without having to return to dry land, he said.

The scientists tagged 47 grey-headed albatrosses but only managed to retrieve data from 22 devices, which weigh about 9 grams and do not interfere with the bird's movements, Dr Phillips said.

Grey-headed albatrosses have a wingspan of 220 centimetres (7ft 3ins). They raise one chick every two years, and it takes about 140 days before the chick is strong enough to fly.

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