Albatrosses Fly Around World After Mating, Tags Reveal

January 13, 2005

It is well known that albatrosses take an 18-month break between mating seasons. Less clear has been where the globe-trotting birds go during their year-and-a-half respite. That is until now.

A new study reveals that some albatrosses fly around the world once. Others twice. Still others—call them relative homebodies—stick closer to their breeding grounds in the southern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean.

The research was conducted by British scientists, who developed special tags to track the seabirds. Their study, for the first time, lifts the fog on the migration routes of albatrosses between breeding seasons. It also provides conservationists with new information they hope can help divert the birds' rapid flight to extinction.

"This should lead to defining critical year-round habitat for [albatrosses for] the first time," said John Croxall, head of biological sciences at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England. Croxall led the study published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

Albatrosses are the world's most threatened family of birds. The World Conservation Union, based in Geneva, Switzerland, lists 19 of 21 albatross species as globally threatened. Conservationists warn that unless urgent action is taken, the seabirds will be lost forever.

Albatrosses fall prey to longlines, baited hooks stretched for miles across the oceans by commercial fishing fleets. Intended to lure tuna, swordfish, and other creatures, fish bait on longlines is equally attractive to albatrosses.

The seabirds become unintentionally hooked and drown and become what's known as bycatch. In 2001 conservationists estimated that the world's longline fisheries kill 300,000 seabirds annually, of which at least a third are albatrosses.

Croxall, the study author, is keen to protect the seabirds. His protection plan seeks to provide fisheries managers with the information they need to prevent bycatch. "The idea is not to ban or to displace fishing, but to manage it more strictly," he said.

Migration Tracking

Euan Dunn, head of marine policy for the United Kingdom's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said that accurate information on the distribution of albatrosses at sea is key to implementing effective conservation steps.

"This [study] enables us to identify where the birds are most vulnerable and to safeguard their critical habitat," Dunn said.

The mating habits and habitats of breeding albatrosses have been well documented, since the seabirds tend to breed in a few well-studied areas. However, many species breed for only a few months every two years and spend the rest of their time at sea.

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