Climate change pushes some albatrosses to 'divorce', study finds

MELBOURNE, Australia – Albatrosses typically mate for life, making them one of the most monogamous creatures on the planet. But climate...


MELBOURNE, Australia – Albatrosses typically mate for life, making them one of the most monogamous creatures on the planet. But climate change may cause more birds to ‘divorce’, a study published last week by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

The study of 15,500 breeding pairs of black-browed albatrosses on New Island in the Falklands used data spanning 15 years. The researchers, led by Francesco Ventura of the University of Lisbon, found that the divorce rate among birds, which averaged 3.7% during this period, increased in years when the ocean was the most hot. In 2017, it rose to 7.7%.

Divorce from albatrosses is usually very rare. The most common trigger for permanent separation is the inability to successfully fly away with a chick, the report notes. In years of unusually warm seas, albatrosses were more likely to struggle with fertility and divorce – the technical term used by researchers – foreshadowing a worrying trend for seabird populations in general as temperatures are rising globally.

“The increase in sea surface temperature has led to an increase in divorces,” Mr. Ventura, a conservation biologist, said in an interview.

But even after the models took into account higher reproductive failure in warmer years, that in and of itself did not explain the increase in divorce rates, the researchers found. “We see that there is still something that remains unexplained,” Mr. Ventura said.

Large seabirds are found in the southern hemisphere, countries like New Zealand, and off the coast of Argentina. They are known for their expansive travel, wingspan of up to 11 feet, and long life. They can survive for decades. Black-browed albatrosses get their name from drooping, sooty eyebrows that give them an expression of permanent irritation.

Partnered albatrosses spend most of the year apart, coming together each season to raise chicks together. The male usually arrives first on land, where he awaits his mate and takes care of their nest.

“It’s pretty obvious that they love each other,” said Graeme Elliott, an albatross expert with the New Zealand Department of Conservation who was not involved in the New Island study. “After watching albatrosses for 30, 40 years, you can sort of spot it. They do all of these things that we think are important – human emotional stuff, you know – greet the long lost mate, and they love each other, and they’re going to have a baby. That’s wonderful.”

Birds generally return to the same mate each breeding season. The pairs perform a reunion dance that becomes more synchronized over the years. “They increase the quality of performance over the years – at first a little clunky, then over time they get better and better,” said Mr. Ventura.

The stress of warmer seas seems to upset this delicate balance, especially if the birds arrive late or less healthy for the breeding season after having flown farther to find food.

“We would expect colder waters to be associated with more nutrient-rich and resource-rich conditions, while warmer waters are resource-poor conditions,” said Mr. Ventura.

Some albatrosses in the study population ended successful unions and recoupled with another albatross, the researchers found. (Women, who find it easier to find a new partner, tend to be the instigators of permanent separations.)

“After a difficult and resource-poor breeding season, the increased effort and higher breeding investment can cause stressed females to disrupt the bond with their old partner and look for a new one, even if they have already been successful. “the researchers wrote.

Dr Elliott, the New Zealand albatross expert, said the study results “don’t surprise me so much”. Researchers have noticed demographic changes in birds elsewhere as fish populations have declined, he said.

Albatross numbers on the remote Antipodes Islands, about 530 miles south of New Zealand, have declined by two-thirds in the past 15 years, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Conservation.

Climate change is a factor: Female birds have strayed from their cape in search of harder-to-find food, putting them in lethal contact with fishing boats and causing a significant population imbalance, Dr. Elliott.

This has prompted male albatrosses who find themselves single to make some desperate decisions, he said. Male-male pairs now represent 2-5% of the island’s bird population, echoing a pattern of homosexual mating behavior across many species.

“We currently have between one and twice as many men as women on the island,” said Dr Elliott. “We formed these male-male pairs – the males can’t find mates, and after a while they decide other males are better than none at all.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Climate change pushes some albatrosses to 'divorce', study finds
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