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Wild Things

The weird and wonderful in the natural world

Sarah Zielinski

Wild Things


Wild Things

Sooty terns’ migration takes the birds into the path of hurricanes

sooty tern flying over open water

Sooty terns that nest in the Dry Tortugas National Park, west of Key West, Fla., migrate along a path that often crosses tropical storms and hurricanes, scientists have found.

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Hurricane season has officially begun in the North Atlantic, and it’s not just coastal communities that have to worry. A population of sooty terns off the southwest tip of Florida might want to worry, too. Depending on when and where storms hit, the terns could be in for a tough time. Their migratory route overlaps with the general path of hurricanes traveling from the waters off Africa up to the United States, a new study finds.

Sooty terns can be found all over the world. But the ones that nest in the Dry Tortugas National Park, west of Key West, are among the best known. The birds have been the subject of a long-term study that started back in 1959, and of other studies that stretch back into the early 20th century. Those studies revealed much about the birds’ growth and behavior, but not much about the terns’ migration.

In 2011, Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University, and colleagues attached geolocators to 25 sooty terns. A geolocator is “a remarkably stupid device,” Pimm says. It simply records how bright it is every 12 minutes. From that information, researchers can determine sunrise and sunset from day to day — and therefore approximate the birds’ location. But they have to retrieve the devices to get the data. That meant finding those 25 birds in a population of 80,000.

The researchers managed to find two.

But those two birds had some remarkable data. The geolocators recorded that the birds had experienced a 12-hour day in December, offset by five hours from Florida. That meant that they had been flying somewhere around the equator and were headed toward Africa.

But perhaps those two birds were outliers. So in 2014, Pimm’s group got some more sophisticated technology that could transmit a bird’s location. The new tech was also a lot more expensive, so the scientists were able to track only five birds. But the researchers also didn’t have to wait a year to get the data — or search for the birds among a population of thousands. “I would get up every day and check on where the birds were,” Pimm recalls.

At least some of the terns were flying south through the Caribbean, southeast along the coast of South America and then to the middle of the Atlantic, where they spent the winter, the team reports May 10 in PeerJ.

It’s a path that takes the birds straight up hurricane alley the long way, Pimm notes.

The researchers then took advantage of all those decades of banding birds. They matched historical reports from 1960 to 1980 of wrecked (that is, dead) sooty terns with tropical storms and hurricanes. Some years the birds were fine, but, Pimm says, “some years they get absolutely slaughtered.” If a storm hits at the wrong place and the wrong time, the birds are out of luck. Even if they manage to survive the high winds and heavy rains, they can be blown far off course. Hurricane Camille, for instance, took one poor sooty tern to the Great Lakes in 1969.

In some years, hurricanes may take out a small portion of the sooty tern population, but it doesn’t appear to be enough to cause big declines. Pimm worries, though, about what might happen in the future. It is not yet clear how climate change might change the severity or frequency of hurricanes — and thus affect the terns — but it is something to keep an eye on, Pimm says.

Animals

Why create a model of mammal defecation? Because everyone poops

By Sarah Zielinski 7:00am, May 11, 2017
Mammals that defecate in the same fashion as humans all excrete waste within the same time frame, no matter their size, a new study finds.
Animals

How a dolphin eats an octopus without dying

By Sarah Zielinski 1:00pm, April 25, 2017
An octopus’s tentacles can kill a dolphin — or a human — when eaten alive. But wily dolphins in Australia have figured out how to do this safely.
Animals,, Conservation

Improbable ‘black swan’ events can devastate animal populations

By Sarah Zielinski 9:00am, April 17, 2017
Conservation managers should take a note from the world of investments and pay attention to “black swan” events, a new study posits.
Animals

Camera trap catches a badger burying a cow

By Sarah Zielinski 11:00am, March 31, 2017
Badgers are known to bury small animals to save them for future eating. Now researchers have caught them caching something much bigger: young cows.
Animals,, Conservation

De-extinction probably isn’t worth it

By Sarah Zielinski 7:00am, March 9, 2017
Diverting money to resurrecting extinct creatures could put those still on Earth at risk.
Sustainability,, Oceans,, Animals

Most fish turned into fishmeal are species that we could be eating

By Sarah Zielinski 7:00am, February 27, 2017
Millions of tons of food-grade fish are turned into fishmeal for aquaculture and agriculture.
Animals

The animal guide to finding love

By Sarah Zielinski 6:00am, February 14, 2017
Learn to dance, keep an eye on your competition, bring a gift: Animals have some practical advice for finding a mate.
Animals,, Conservation

A diet of corn turns wild hamsters into cannibals

By Sarah Zielinski 9:00am, February 7, 2017
Female European hamsters fed a diet of corn eat their young — alive. They may be suffering from something similar to the human disease pellagra.
Conservation,, Plants

A message to rock climbers: Be kind to nature

By Sarah Zielinski 7:00am, January 18, 2017
Scientists are only just starting to figure out the impacts that the sport of rock climbing is having on cliff ecosystems.
Animals

World’s largest reindeer population may fall victim to climate change

By Sarah Zielinski 8:00am, December 23, 2016
Climate change and wolves are driving down the reindeer population in Russia’s Taimyr population.
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