Scientists have recorded the first observations of how albatrosses feed alongside marine mammals at sea.
A miniature digital camera was attached to the backs of four black-browed albatrosses (Thalassarche melanophrys). Results are published online this week in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.
Albatrosses fly many hundreds of kilometers across the open ocean to find and feed upon their prey. Despite the growing number of studies concerning their foraging behaviour, relatively little is known about how albatrosses actually locate their prey. The still images recorded from the cameras showed that some albatrosses actively followed a killer whale (Orcinus orca), possibly to feed on food scraps left by this diving predator. The camera images together with the depth profiles showed that the birds dived only occasionally, but that they actively dived when other birds or the killer whale were present. This association with diving predators or other birds may partially explain how albatrosses find their prey more efficiently in the apparently ‘featureless’ ocean, with a minimal requirement for energetically costly diving or landing activities.
The camera, developed by the National Institute for Polar Research in Tokyo, is removed when the albatross returns to its breeding ground after foraging trips. It is small and weighs 82g. Although the camera slightly changes the aerodynamic shape of the albatross, it didn’t affect the breeding success of the study birds.
Dr Richard Phillips from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) says, “These images are really interesting. They show us that albatrosses associate with marine mammals in the same way as tropical seabirds often do with tuna. In both cases the prey (usually fish) are directed to the surface and then it’s easy hunting for the birds.”
The study took place at the breeding colony of black-browed albatrosses at Bird Island, South Georgia in January 2009, as part of a UK-Japan International Polar Year 2007-9 project.
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