In-Flight Albatross Cam Finds the Birds Feeding with Killer Whales

By Hugh Powell
October 6, 2009
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You know what’s super-cool? Putting a lipstick-sized camera on the back of a Black-browed Albatross and turning it loose to forage across the windswept Southern Ocean. That’s what scientists from the National Institute of Polar Research in Japan and the British Antarctic Survey have done with four of the birds, and they’ve wound up with a remarkable albatross-eye view of life pieced together from more than 28,000 photos. They’ve learned that albatrosses sometimes forage in groups, as in the formation shot above (In the slideshow, I love the pink feet trailing behind one of the birds and the leader keeping an eye on the others over its shoulder). But there’s more.

In the next slideshow image, at least four albatrosses follow an orca (killer whale), a behavior that hadn’t been documented before. It stands to reason, British Antarctic Survey scientist Richard Phillips said—tropical seabirds sometimes forage with tuna schools, and albatrosses routinely follow fishing vessels. Nevertheless, it’s pretty exciting to get confirmation in an image of these birds coasting behind the whale, almost drafting off its dorsal fin (click for larger version).

And I love the vantage point in the third image: a single bird high above the water, sizing up a massive iceberg off in the distance. Scientists have been putting instruments on albatrosses and other birds for years now, but this is the first time they’ve brought back pictures. If they can combine this with GPS locations, they’ll gain new insights into albatross behavior and may also learn about vast stretches of ocean that scientists seldom visit—much the way oceanographers are learning about undersea conditions through the totally cool Tagging of Pacific Pelagics program.

The work appears today in the open-access journal PLOS One. Below, a look at the tiny fraction of an albatross’s life spent on land. These highlights were filmed by the British Antarctic Survey at their longtime study site, a breeding colony on Bird Island, South Georgia, about 1,000 miles east of Tierra del Fuego.

See Living Bird magazine for more about the ways industrial fishing is endangering the world’s albatrosses, as well as new techniques to help avoid the impact.

Video courtesy British Antarctic Survey.