Climate crisis pushes albatross ‘divorce’ rates higher – study

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Albatrosses, some of the world’s most loyal monogamous creatures, are “divorcing” more often—and researchers say global warming may be to blame.

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In a new study from the Royal Society, researchers say climate change and warmer waters are driving the black-brown albatross’s breakdown rate higher. Usually after choosing a mate, only 1–3% would break away in search of lush romantic pastures.


But in years with unusually warm water temperatures, the average continued to rise, with up to 8% of couples separated. The study looked at wild populations of 15,500 breeding pairs in the Falkland Islands over 15 years.

For seabirds, warmer waters mean fewer fish, less food, and a harsher environment. Fewer chicks survive. There is an increase in the stress hormones of birds. They are forced far and wide to hunt.

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As some of the animal kingdom’s most loyal partners, the love life of albatrosses has long been the subject of scientific study. “All of these things are what we think of as super-duper humans,” says Dr Graeme Elliott, principal science advisor to the New Zealand Department of Conservation, who has been studying albatrosses in the country’s waters for three decades.

Birds lend themselves to anthropomorphism: live 50-60 years, they have a long, awkward juvenile stage as they learn how to attract a mate through dance, and when mature Take long trips of years away from home. They usually mate for a lifetime, and celebrate loudly when greeting a mate after a long absence.

But now, they increasingly share another rite of passage that may sound familiar to young humans: under stress from the climate crisis, working long hours to eat, and coping with the logistical difficulties of a traveling companion. Some are struggling to maintain relationships.

Black-brown albatross in New Zealand. Photograph: Francesco Ventura

Researchers from the University of Lisbon and Royal Society study co-author Francesco Ventura said the researchers were surprised to find that warm waters were separating at an unusually high rate of albatross joints, even when the lack of fish was accounted for. Was.

Ventura said albatross divorce was usually predicted by reproductive failure. If a pair fails to produce a chick, they are more likely to separate. Less food for birds can lead to more failures. But the researchers were surprised to find that even when they accounted for this, higher water temperatures were having an additional effect—upping the divorce rate even if the breeding was successful.

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Ventura suggested two possible reasons – one that the warmer waters were forcing the birds to hunt longer and fly further. If the birds do not return for the breeding season, their mates may move on with a new one. Additionally, when the water is warm and in a harsh environment, albatross stress hormones increase. Ventura said birds may feel that way, and blame their mates.

“We propose this partner-blaming hypothesis—with which a stressed female may feel this physiological stress, and attribute these high stress levels to the male’s poor performance,” he says.

The research comes as many international albatross populations are in trouble. “Their numbers are dwindling,” Elliot. The population of the wandering albatross was now declining at a rate of 5–10% each year, and had been falling since about 2005. The declining numbers come as a result of reduced prey, warmer seas and increased encounters with tuna line-fishing boats, which accidentally capture and kill the birds.

The decline in population numbers was changing the birds’ mating patterns in other ways, Elliott said, with more homozygous pairings appearing. “We’re getting male-male pairs between birds on Antipodes Island, which we didn’t have before,” he said. “A small percentage of boys are hooking up with another guy because they can’t find a female partner.”

The Royal Society study looked at populations of black-browed albatrosses in the Falkland Islands, where numbers were still strong, and where the divorce was not devastating, Ventura said – the birds may find other mates. But he said the same dynamics could apply to other albatross populations, with more detrimental effects where the birds are more vulnerable. “If we are talking about a population with very few breeding pairs, the dissolution of a bond can certainly cause some disturbances in routine reproductive processes,” he said.

Now, Elliott hopes that some of the empathy people have for albatrosses may inspire changes in behavior, to address environmental threats facing the birds—particularly climate change, and tuna fishing. “We need an international campaign to save these birds,” says Elliot. “If we don’t change that, they’ll go extinct.”

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