The first study of how individual wandering albatrosses find food shows
that the birds rely heavily on their sense of smell. The birds can pick
up a scent from several miles away, U.S. and French researchers have
"This is the first time anyone has looked at the
odor-tracking behavior of individual birds in the wild using remote
techniques," said Gabrielle Nevitt, professor of neurobiology,
physiology and behavior at UC Davis and an author on the study with UC
Davis graduate student Marcel Losekoot of the Bodega Marine Laboratory
and Henri Weimerskirch of the Centre National de la Recherche
Wandering albatrosses fly for thousands of miles across the ocean,
usually gliding a few feet above sea level. Floating carrion,
especially squid, make up a large part of their diet.
nesting on Possession Island in the southwestern Indian Ocean were
fitted with GPS receivers that recorded their exact position every 10
seconds and stomach temperature gauges that noted every meal. When the
birds returned to land after a foraging trip, the researchers removed
the equipment and downloaded the data.
They found that the birds
usually flew across the wind, which allows them to cross plumes of
scent drifting downwind and is also the best strategy for
Sometimes birds would fly straight to
food, but almost half the time an albatross would either turn upwind or
zigzag into the wind toward a meal. Both patterns suggest that the
birds were following a plume of scent, rather than visual cues. Birds
could turn upwind toward a food source several miles away -- well over
the visual horizon.
Hunting by scent allows the albatross to cover a strip of ocean several miles wide as it flies crosswind, Nevitt said.
albatrosses and their relatives do not appear to have particularly good
eyesight, compared with other predatory birds, and their eyes may be
adapted to scan movement on the horizon. That might help them detect
other groups of other birds gathered around food.
The study is
published online by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences and was funded by grants from the French Polar Institute and
the U.S. National Science Foundation.
UC Davis. March 2008.