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Smelling dinner on the open sea

Albatross zigzag upwind to sniff out food.

Follow your nose: an albatros can sniff out prey. Credit: Corbis

Wandering albatrosses seem to have a keen sense of smell: so keen that they can follow their nose to food some 20 kilometres away from their starting point.

Following scent trails on the open ocean is not easy, even for an albatross on the prowl for dead fish or squid. Although pungent odours at sea are known to be carried downwind, air turbulence chops up the trail, resulting in intermittent patches of scent.

Researchers have long suspected that a sense of smell plays a role in albatross foraging, but the extent to which they used it was surprising. “We expected more birds to circle around and around” using their eyes to find food, says Gabrielle Nevitt of the University of California, Davis. Instead, Nevitt estimates, smell contributes to almost half of in-flight food finds.

The results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1.

Beelines, zigzags and turns

To study foraging behaviour, the team tagged 19 wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) during brief nesting periods on Possession Island in the southwestern Indian Ocean. The researchers outfitted the birds with small global positioning system (GPS) sensors and fed them small capsules to measure stomach temperature changes that correspond with feeding events.

Nevitt and her colleagues proceeded to record flying behaviour. For the most part, the birds flew perpendicular to the wind (crosswind). This behaviour was expected, as it helps to conserve energy in comparison to flying directly upwind when trying to head in a given direction. “It’s the easiest way to fly, but it also increases your changes of finding an odour plume,” says Nevitt. In many cases the birds would stop flying crosswind and turn upwind, which hinted that they had caught a whiff of something edible.

In some instances the birds would approach their meal by flying upwind in a zigzag pattern. These zigzag hunting patterns have also been seen in insects, fish, crabs and lobsters2, and are thought to maximize the hunter's chance of keeping track of a patchy odour plume.

Vision also seemed to play an important role. In many cases, the albatross flew direct paths toward their future meals, independent of wind direction. In such cases sight is thought to be the main hunting tool.

Combination hunters

Albatrosses aren't always so energetic. At night, the birds accomplished most food finds by sitting on the water and waiting for the current to lead them to food.

Nevitt has studied albatross hunting behaviour before, but not with as much luck. In previous studies, she laid down smelly slicks and watched birds by boat3. But complicating factors, including the presence of other birds, made it difficult to distinguish between vision and smell-dominated hunts, she says. GPS gives a 'bird's-eye view' of albatross flight patterns that is much more informative.

Nevitt says that the next step is to study the hunting behaviour of other albatross species. “Wanderers make these great loops. They’re typically foraging along the way, doing strip transects across the ocean,” she says. Black-browed albatross, however, take a direct route to the same feeding grounds each year and are likely to search for food in a different way.

References

  1. Nevitt, G. A., Losekoot, M. & Weimerskirch, H. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA advance online publication, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0709047105 (2008).

  2. Vickers, N. J. Biol. Bull., 198, 203-212 (2000).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Nevitt, G. et al. J. Exp. Bio. 207, 3537-3544 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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Odour-plume dynamics influence the brain's olfactory code

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Henri Weimerskirch on albatross study

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Courtland, R. Smelling dinner on the open sea. Nature (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2008.635

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