Young puffins work out their own migration routes

Aug 03, 2011 By Tamera Jones
Young puffins work out their own migration routes

Young Atlantic puffins migrating for the first time scout out their own routes, rather than relying on genetic programming or help from their parents, the latest study reveals.

A team of UK scientists tracked 18 puffins from Skomer Island just off the coast of Pembrokeshire in west Wales and found that each bird uses a completely different .

Some birds go to waters off Greenland or Iceland for the winter, while others stay closer to home or head out in the opposite direction into the Mediterranean.

After tracking eight of the birds the following year, the researchers discovered that each puffin follows the same route it used the year before.

"The birds' migrations are unlikely to be genetically programmed, because individual routes are so different," says Professor Tim Guilford from the University of Oxford, joint first author of the study, along with Dr. Robin Freeman from Microsoft Research Cambridge.

Nor is it likely young puffins are learning from their parents, because fledglings leave the colony alone, at night, and long before the adults do, so have no opportunity at all to copy mum and dad.

The team's results are surprising, because previous studies suggest that birds do either rely on genetic instincts, or learn which route to take from their parents or the flock.

Where seabirds go and how they migrate over featureless open ocean has long been a mystery to scientists. That is, until researchers at the British Antarctic Survey developed tiny devices called geolocators.

The devices can be easily attached to a bird's leg and weigh just two grams, or less than one per cent of the weight of an adult puffin. They record light intensity and time, which, when fed into a computer programme, tells scientists more or less where the birds have been.

"What's really changed is that we can study the long distance movements of seabirds, because of this new technology,' explains Guilford. 'Until just last year, no-one knew for certain where puffins go during the winter."

A recent study revealed that puffins from the Isle of May, just off the east coast of Scotland, tend to overwinter in a wide range of places, including the north Atlantic, the North Sea, and as far as the Faroe Islands.

"But there's no evidence for concentrated overwintering areas, and whenever people have spotted them out at sea, they tend to be alone," Guilford says.

This adds weight to the idea that individual birds' migratory routes vary hugely. So Guilford, Freeman and colleagues from the University of Oxford and the decided to use geolocators to find out.

"We were particularly interested in finding out if these birds followed the same route year after year," says Guilford.

The fact that the birds do indeed stick to the same route they've scouted out previously was, "a real surprise," he adds. "I thought we'd be looking at a genetically-controlled migration."

The findings suggest the birds have a memory of their route, perhaps learnt in their pre-breeding years, but exactly how they navigate over the open ocean is still not clear. The results are also important from a conservation perspective.

Puffins from the Isle of May haven't fared well in recent years. Research has revealed that part of the problem is lack of their favourite food – sand eels. But it's also showed that up to 50 per cent of birds have perished during the winter. On the other hand, trends show that around 90 per cent of birds from Skomer Island are surviving the winter.

"What this means is that we can start to say that some overwintering areas are less good for birds," Guilford says.

"What we'd like to do next is track young birds and do genetic studies to find out if on Skomer Island have different genetic heritages," he adds.

Explore further: Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

More information: Tim Guilford, et al., A Dispersive Migration in the Atlantic Puffin and Its Implications for Migratory Navigation, PLoS ONE 6(7): e21336, published July 20, 2011, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021336

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Puffins 'scout out' best migration route

Jul 21, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Individual Atlantic puffins 'scout out' their own migration routes rather than relying on genetic ‘programming’ or learning routes from a parent, a new study suggests.

Where do puffins go in the winter?

Jan 08, 2010

A recent increase in winter mortality in Atlantic puffins could be due to worsening conditions within the North Sea, according to new findings published in the scientific journal Marine Biology. The study used geolocation techno ...

Puffins to be fitted with 'sat nav' to monitor decline

Jul 01, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists at Newcastle University are using GPS technology in an effort to understand a worrying decline in the numbers of Puffins. In the last five years the numbers of the sea birds has plummeted aroun ...

Norway's Puffin chicks lack food

Jul 17, 2007

Very few puffin chicks born this year on the Norwegian island of Rost are expected to survive due to shortages of the birds' food source.

Seabird's ocean lifestyle revealed

Jan 21, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- An important British seabird has been tracked for the first time using miniature positioning loggers. The results are giving a team led by Oxford University zoologists information that could ...

Recommended for you

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

7 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

More vets turn to prosthetics to help legless pets

3 hours ago

A 9-month-old boxer pup named Duncan barreled down a beach in Oregon, running full tilt on soft sand into YouTube history and showing more than 4 million viewers that he can revel in a good romp despite lacking ...

Chimpanzees prefer firm, stable beds

13 hours ago

Chimpanzees may select a certain type of wood, Ugandan Ironwood, over other options for its firm, stable, and resilient properties to make their bed, according to a study published April 16, 2014 in the open-access ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Revealing camouflaged bacteria

A research team at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel has discovered an protein family that plays a central role in the fight against the bacterial pathogen Salmonella within the cells. The so cal ...

Sony's PlayStation 4 sales top seven million

Sony says it has sold seven million PlayStation 4 worldwide since its launch last year and admitted it can't make them fast enough, in a welcome change of fortune for the Japanese consumer electronics giant.