Older Couples Spend Less Time Apart, The Albatross

Wandering albatrosses with older partners spend less time on foraging trips than those with more sprightly partners so that their mate has a shorter wait without food. 

Image credit: Samantha Patrick, University of Liverpool

In a study published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, researchers analysed data from the foraging trips of 71 pairs nesting in the remote Crozet Archipelago in the southern Indian Ocean. 

The data, collected from small devices fitted to the legs of wandering albatrosses, enabled the team to measure the amount of time they spent at sea. This revealed that birds mated to older partners took shorter feeding trips and so returned to the nest sooner than those with younger partners.  

The researchers think this might be because the birds are able to assess how long their partner can go without food. As older birds may struggle to withstand the pressure of a long fast, their partners choose to relieve them sooner. This ultimately benefits both parents, who rely on one another to rear their young. 

Finn McCully, University of Liverpool’s  School of Environmental Sciences, explained:

“On paper, this behaviour looks very caring: one parent gives up feeding time to help protect the other. In reality, this behaviour benefits both parents. Albatrosses cannot be single parents; the conditions are too harsh. If one parent runs the other one ragged by making them do too much work, they will lose the chick which is disastrous for both partners. 

“Our findings suggest that the birds have a way of telling how much pressure their partner is able to take. This familiarity may develop over the years they spend breeding together, as they get to know each other’s limits, but more research is required to test this theory. 

“So if you are a wandering albatross and your partner is that little bit older and less able to recover from a long fast, it’s in your best interests to take extra steps to help keep them fighting fit”.    

Although previous work has indicated that wandering albatrosses adjust their own foraging behaviour as they get older, this is the first study to suggest that their partner’s age might also be important. 

Finn McCully added:

“We thought that birds would care more about their own age than that of their partner when making decisions, so these results were truly unexpected. 

“Our results just go to show how complicated the lives of animals can be and how nature is full of surprises!” 

Wandering albatrosses in this population have been actively studied since 1966. Threats, particularly that of being caught in fishing gear, caused their numbers to decline steeply in the 1970s leading to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) labelling this species as ‘vulnerable’.   

The research was led by researchers from the Seabird Ecology Group at the University of Liverpool in collaboration with scientists from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the University of Sheffield and Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. 

The paper ` Partner intrinsic characteristics influence foraging trip duration, but not coordination of care in wandering albatrosses Diomedea exulans’ is published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.  

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