Wandering albatross individuality, new study

This 2007 video from South Georgia is called Nature of wandering albatross birds – David Attenborough – BBC wildlife.

From the Ecological Society of America in the USA:

Life of an albatross: Tackling individuality in studies of populations

A study follows 9,685 wandering albatrosses throughout their long lives, seeking the intrinsic differences that make some individuals outstanding performers

December 7, 2017

When ecologists study populations of animals, they commonly round off the individuality of individuals, treating animals of the same species, sex, and age like identical units. This has practical utility for studies focused on how populations change in size and composition and how they respond to their environment.

Rémi Fay, a student at Université de La Rochelle, in Villiers-en-Bois, France, is interested in the peculiarities that make some animals more successful than others. Unrecognized differences in performance between individuals can sometimes have demographic effects that skew the interpretation of data at the scale of whole populations, if the differences are not due to chance but to an underlying variability in “individual quality”. If, for example, low-quality individuals die young, the population as a whole would appear to gain in performance with age.

In a study published in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecological Monographs, Fay and his colleagues pursued the elusive individual quality in a population of wandering albatross, a singular bird possessed of several helpful characteristics for distinguishing the influence of individual quality: they live a very long time, grow to adulthood slowly, and breed infrequently, investing all of their parental energy into a single egg every few years.

Fay and colleagues observed that some birds consistently performed better throughout their lives on distinct measures of survival and procreative success. Birds that began reproducing early also had more chicks, and were more likely to successfully rear their chicks to fledge and take flight. These high-performing birds were more likely to live a long time. Failed breeders were more likely to fail again.

The concordance in success in several life history traits, the authors say, is an indication that these individuals have an intrinsic quality that makes them successful, rather than occasional good luck. Quality varied strongly between birds born in different years. This observation suggests that the early-life environment has a powerful, lifelong influence, Fay says. Birds born in warm years, when there is less food, were smaller. Birds born in years of high population density also performed more poorly throughout their lives.

Although fundamental to natural selection, individual quality is notoriously difficult to pin down. Teasing out performance differences due to inherent individual quality from the luck of the environmental draw requires life-long monitoring of many individuals that are known to be the same age. Individuals must be marked at birth. High sample sizes are needed, because the juvenile years are a big hurdle; many young animals do not make it to adulthood.

Fay had at his disposal a remarkable dataset collected by researchers from his institution on Possession Island in the Crozet Archipelago (46°S; 52°E) in the southern Indian Ocean. From 1965 to 2013, researchers banded all newly hatched wanderings albatross chicks and followed the birds throughout their lives. Researchers returned every summer to record the important events of a bird’s life: hatching, fledging, juvenile years at sea, the first egg, successful rearing of chicks, death of chicks, missed breeding opportunities, and aging.

Wandering albatrosses are delightfully weird and charismatic birds. They spend most of their long lives in the air, coming to ground in the southern summer to breed on rocky islands near the A[nta]rctic Circle. They famously trail behind fishing vessels, waiting for cast-offs. Their distinctive wingspan, extending over 11 feet (up to 3.5 meters), is the largest of all living birds. On this great span, the birds can glide long distances with minimal effort, riding favorable winds for hundreds of miles per day with rarely a need to flap. Some circumnavigate Antarctica multiple times a year.

They mate for life and produce just one egg in a season, with the male and female taking turns to warm their solitary charge through an 11-week incubation. The parents feed their nest-bound chick for another 8-10 months, remaining through the ensuing winter snows. They forage over thousands of miles to feed their enormous chick until it reaches a weight heavier than their own. The juveniles will need their stored calories to survive long enough to learn the skills necessary to stay aloft, cruising the open waves of the southern hemisphere oceans, looking for fish and squid meals they can scoop from the surface.

After rearing their chick, the parents take a sabbatical year at sea before returning to the colony to breed again. Juveniles leave the nest and head out alone to the open sea. They don’t return for at least 3 years, perfecting their flying and foraging skills through an extended adolescence. Their age when they begin breeding varies greatly. Albatrosses may conceive their first egg as young as 6 and as old as 15, with most beginning parenthood at 9 to 10 years. Body weight and health factor strongly into the birds’ decision to breed.

A precocious advancement to parenthood, Fay and colleagues say, could indicate superior foraging ability. In individuals of the same age, that shared the same environment, such idiosyncrasies could depend on differences in an underlying quality intrinsic to the individual. A pattern of lifelong success in reproduction supports the conclusion that an underlying quality drives their performance, the authors say.

More females than males performed highly after two years of age. The authors do not know if male and female birds travel different paths during their youthful years at sea, and thus experience different challenges. Old males, but not old females, take long trips to sea and their blood contains corticosterone at levels that indicate stress. The team observed that male birds also face a trade-off in performance and longevity that does not affect females. After 30, albatrosses begin to age. High-performing males, the authors found, declined faster than other birds that survived into their golden years.

Plastic killed albatross chick on nest, bycatch a huge threat at sea: here.

Albatross, shark kill each other

This video, recirded on the sub-Antarctic Crozet islands, says about itself:

Do albatrosses have personalities?

12 jan. 2015

Surprisingly, albatrosses do have different personalities. A bright blue plastic cow is used as an albatross personality test, helping scientists to discover how personality affects success in rearing chicks.

From the blog of the Te Papa Tongarewa museum in New Zealand, with photos there:

Albatross vs Shark

Posted 4 December 2015 by Alan Tennyson

This beauty and the beast tale did not end happily ever after for either character.

Te Papa staff member Hokimate Harwood collected a rather smelly deceased albatross on Wellington’s south coast on 15 November.

A Shark Tale

In the lab we were astounded to see a shark’s tail protruding from its neck. When we cut the dead bird open we found that the shark was intact and reached the entire length of the bird’s body cavity! The shark was completely undigested – no doubt it had been protected by its tough, sandpaper-like skin – and we speculate that the bird choked on the fish.

A little shark that can take on a whale

This was no ordinary looking shark – it was a seal shark (Dalatias licha), a worldwide species with a particularly vicious set of teeth distributed in a circular arrangement in its jaws. It uses these teeth for bandsawing chunks out of creatures as big as whales. A cousin, the aptly named cookiecutter shark (Isistius brasiliensis), has similarly delightful habits, including sometimes munching on submarines and humans! We looked inside the shark’s gut also but there was no evidence that it had been eating the albatross from the inside.

An untimely end for bird and shark

The unlucky bird was a northern royal albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) – one of the world’s largest seabirds and the species famous for nesting at Taiaroa Head, Dunedin (although its main colonies are on the Chatham Islands). The graceful flying ability of albatrosses is not matched by their less wholesome diet, which consists largely of scavenged food, such as dead squid and fish, found floating on the surface. As seal sharks are a deep water species, we suspect that the hungry bird gulped down the shark which it found as waste from a trawler, and thus both bird and shark met an untimely end.

What happens next?

Te Papa will skeletonise both specimens for its permanent research collections. These will be used mainly for identifying fossil remains. Some of the oldest known fossils of a seal shark are from the Eocene of New Zealand – c. 40 million years ago.

Thanks to Tom Shultz and Colin Miskelly for their assistance, Andrew Stewart for identifying the shark, and Hokimate for bringing in the unfortunate creatures.

Research on king penguins on the Crozet islands

This 9 August 2015 video is called King penguins following me on the beach on Crozet (Ile de la Possession) .

From the New Zealand Herald:

Scientists use penguins to do research for them

By Simon Usborne

He is used to marching across the frozen expanse of Antarctica, his sleek silhouette and monochrome plumage marking him out from the harsh, windswept landscape.

Plunging hundreds of metres into the dark, icy depths of the Southern Ocean and spending weeks on end expertly hunting fish is just a way of life for him. But waddling along on an adapted treadmill inside a rickety Perspex box, Roy the king penguin looks far from majestic.

Although he might not have appreciated it at the time, he and his friends were recruited as scientific researchers in an ambitious project to gauge the effects of overfishing and global warming on the Southern Ocean ecosystem. …

The Birmingham team travels thousands of kilometres from the Midlands to the tiny Indian Ocean island of Reunion, before taking a week-long voyage to the Crozet archipelago, a French territory of islands about halfway between Madagascar and Antarctica.

Palaeocene fossil Waimanu penguins: here.

The world’s biggest colony of king penguins is found in the National Nature Reserve of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF). Using high-resolution satellite images, researchers have detected a massive 88 percent reduction in the size of the penguin colony, located on Île aux Cochons, in the Îles Crozet archipelago. The causes of the colony’s collapse remain a mystery but may be environmental: here.