For nearly two decades, Paulo Catry has coordinated a study of black-eyed albatrosses in the Falkland Islands. On his last visit to the colony, he noted pairs of birds that had stayed together almost since the beginning of the study. “There were still partnerships, two identical birds – 16, 17 years later, they are still in the same nest,” said Catry, an ISPA researcher at the Instituto Universitrio in Lisbon. “It really is, very nice to see.”
This is not uncommon: These long-lived seabirds usually mate throughout life. In fact, albatrosses rarely “divorce” or choose a new mate while their mate from the previous breeding season is still alive. But as climate change raises ocean temperatures, such divorces could become more common, Catry and his colleagues warn in a new article. And it could have serious implications for seabirds facing a host of threats in a warming future.
For some species, divorce occurs frequently: Emperor Penguins split about 85 percent of cases and two-thirds of Separate Plover Pipe Pairs. Mallards are mostly loyal, with a divorce rate of only 9 percent. But albatross couples, after spending most of the year alone at sea, almost always stay together when they return to their breeding grounds. For this loyalty, they have been proclaimed as the embodiment of bird love.
Divorce among birds is actually a strategy for breeding success. If a couple does not succeed in hatching or hatching birds, at least one of them, usually a female, may choose to find another mate next season. “But it’s not a strict rule,” Catry says. Some birds that fail to reproduce still stay together, and some that do, may divorce anyway. “So failure, although it is a predictor of divorce, is not very good. So there have to be other variables. ”
of new findings, published in Royal Society Procedures B, show that black-eyed albatrosses were much more likely to divorce in years with a higher ocean surface temperature, even after calculating breeding failure. Throughout the 16-year study, divorce rates ranged from less than 1 percent to nearly 8 percent in the warmer year. The study is the first to show that environmental changes can lead to higher divorce rates in monogamous animals.
One possible reason for this trend, the authors say, is that the fish that albatrosses eat become less so as ocean surface temperatures warm. When birds struggle to find food, raising birds requires more energy. Previous research has shown that this weighs on adults bear in the next breeding season, causing them to arrive later in the nesting sites. If birds that were previously mated arrive at different times to breed, they may find different pairs. Plus, lack of food is linked to stress hormones in birds and stress in a relationship is not a good sign of its success.
“There is a kind of hypothesis about blaming the partner,” says Francesco Ventura, a bird biologist at the University of Lisbon and lead author of the study. “A stressed woman may think the man is not performing well and this could lead to divorce.”
But these findings reveal a deeper issue than some messy feathers in some bird relationships: Increasing divorce can have effects on the entire population by disrupting successful partnerships, researchers say. And the authors suggest that their findings could be applied to other seabirds as well.
For albatrosses, raising a bird is a deeply coordinated process of shifting tasks. Males and females participate equally in the incubation of the egg for about 70 days and in the feeding of the chicken for about another four months. The whole operation relies on the success of both partners in fish searching and returning to the nest in time.
“A pair of albatrosses that stay together are very good at growing young,” says Don Lyons, director of conservation science for the Seabird Institute in Audubon. “They are really familiar with each other’s models and are able to really complement the delivery of food by their partner. So it is known that in general, couples who work together for many years are more successful. “
That way, if a couple who has successfully raised birds divorces due to environmental stress, they lose the benefit of a familiar partner. And after a divorce, Catry says, birds can spend a year without breeding while looking for a new mate.
Fortunately, the population of the Falkland Islands – which represents 70 percent of the Black-eyed Albatrosses in the world – has not yet shown any impact from the divorce and is actually growing. New Island, where the study took place, hosts only 15,500 breeding pairs. “However, you can imagine that if you are dealing with a population with a much smaller number of breeding pairs,” says Ventura, “even an interruption of a breeding process can be a problem.”
Globally, the number of seabirds has fell by 70 percent since the 1950s due to human activity, including overfishing and climate change. These birds are even more endangered as the heat removes the fish from the shores and into deeper and cooler water. Meanwhile, the nests are flooded by strong storms and the rising sea threatens to flood the low habitat of these birds. The northwestern islands of Hawaii, for example, house almost the entire population of the Laysan Albatrosses world, and these atolls are threatened by flood-induced storms and rising sea levels. “Currently, there are large numbers of birds – millions of albatrosses – but most of their nest habitat is in danger of being lost,” says Lyons.
With all these other risks from climate change, increasing divorce may not be the biggest threat albatrosses face, but it is one more challenge that complicates their future. “When the climate changes,” says Catry, “there are all kinds of impacts.”
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