Study finds flightless puffins vulnerable to winter storms for two months a year

Study finds flightless Puffins vulnerable to winter storms for two months a year
Different puffin at-sea behaviors and the position of the tarsus during each. Loggers were mounted on the tarsus of study individuals. Puffins trail their tarsus in flight (a), which leaves the geolocator exposed to light and dry. Puffins sitting on the surface of the water may lower one or both legs for paddling and balance (b), which leaves the tarsus submerged and exposed to light. Puffins inactive on the water may also tuck one leg into their plumage (c), obscuring the tarsus from daylight and keeping it dry. Puffins hunting for prey underwater will have their tarsus submerged and exposed to light levels attenuated by water (d), though this is unlikely to reduce actual light readings, which are taken as a maximum over 5 or 10 minute intervals. Credit: Ecology and Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.1002/ece3.9579

Puffins lose the ability to fly for up to two months every year—twice as long as previously believed. Researchers at University College Cork (UCC) suggest the seabirds are vulnerable to winter storms due to their inability to fly after molting their feathers.

Puffins must shed and regrow their feathers when they wear and lose shape, a process known as molt. When they molt their wing feathers, they also lose the ability to fly, leaving them bound to the water surface.

The timing and location of the flightless molt of has long been a mystery to scientists because it occurs when puffins are far from land and out of sight. However, the Marine Ecology Group from the school of Biological Environmental and Earth Sciences and the MaREI Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre at UCC fitted tracking devices to the birds to keep tabs on their activity.

The group, in collaboration with researchers from the UK and Norway, put tiny loggers on the legs of puffins to record their behavior. Lead author Jamie Darby said, "These loggers record time spent on the water or in flight every 10 minutes over the course of a year. We were able to look for extended periods of time when puffins don't fly at all to study where and when they were flightless."

The results, published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, show that puffins were flightless from one to two months per year.

"This molt occurs when puffins are way out in the Atlantic, and when can be dangerous for a flightless seabird. Puffins are in decline, and often wash up dead on our coasts following severe weather. Winter cyclones in the North Atlantic are likely to become more frequent and more severe with climate change," Darby said, in explaining the significance of the results.

More information: Jamie Hendrick Darby et al, A new biologging approach reveals unique flightless molt strategies of Atlantic puffins, Ecology and Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.1002/ece3.9579

Journal information: Ecology and Evolution

Citation: Study finds flightless puffins vulnerable to winter storms for two months a year (2022, December 13) retrieved 29 May 2023 from
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