Frigate birds fly nonstop for months

Jul 5, 2016

By Laurel Hamers

Even Amelia Earhart couldn’t compete with the great frigate bird. She flew nonstop across the United States for 19 hours in 1932; the frigate bird can stay aloft up to two months without landing, a new study finds. The seabird saves energy on transoceanic treks by capitalizing on the large-scale movement patterns of the atmosphere, researchers report in the July 1 Science. By hitching a ride on favorable winds, the bird can spend more time soaring and less time flapping its wings.

“Frigate birds are really an anomaly,” says Scott Shaffer, an ecologist at San Jose State University in California who wasn’t involved in the study. The large seabird spends much of its life over the open ocean. Both juvenile and adult birds undertake nonstop flights lasting weeks or months, the scientists found. Frigate birds can’t land in the water to catch a meal or take a break because their feathers aren’t waterproof, so scientists weren’t sure how the birds made such extreme journeys.

Researchers attached tiny accelerometers, GPS trackers and heart rate monitors to great frigate birds flying from a tiny island near Madagascar. By pooling data collected over several years, the team re-created what the birds were doing minute-by-minute over long flights — everything from how often the birds flapped their wings to when they dived for food.


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