UF researcher to study how birds navigate the vast oceans without getting lost

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Seabirds are known for traveling vast distances — as much as 8 million kilometers in a lifetime. But just how these birds navigate over long stretches of open water remains a mystery.

Now, thanks to a three-year, $1.35 million grant from the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), a team of researchers including a University of Florida scientist will investigate whether seabirds use low-frequency sound waves called infrasound to stay on course.

Knowing how seabirds move around the globe could enhance future conservation efforts, said Mathieu Basille, one of the team’s co-primary investigators.

“Understanding how seabirds navigate across the ocean could ultimately help reducing the number of birds that die due to human causes, such as bycatch or pollution. This is especially important since current conservation mostly targets breeding sites,” said Basille, an assistant professor with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences based at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.

In addition to Basille, the seabird research team includes Samantha Patrick of the University of Liverpool, Susana Clusella-Trullas of Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and Jelle Assink of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute.

Basille will analyze seabird movements and help the team determine whether seabirds use infrasound to map out migration routes.

Infrasound is generated by geological or meteorological movement. “Humans can’t hear infrasound, but if it’s particularly strong, they may feel it as a vibration,” Basille explained.

However, some animals, such as seabirds, are thought to have special sensory organs that allow them to perceive infrasound we humans never notice.

Fortunately, the research team will have access to data from 60 monitoring stations that can detect infrasound signals around the globe. The team will compare this infrasound data to seabird movements from the Global Seabird Tracking database and to newly collected data from seabird tracking tags specially developed for this project, Basille said.

“Tracking tags will be deployed on albatrosses, which fly very long distances. Our tags will be the first to simultaneously record seabird movement and the infrasound signature of the surroundings,” Basille said.

Infrasound waves create ‘hills’ and ‘valleys’ of sound that birds may use like an atlas as they move around the globe, Basille said.

“If seabirds are using infrasound features to navigate, we would expect them to maneuver with respect to these features,” Basille said. “For example, birds may consistently fly along sound ridges, carefully avoid mountains or direct their long flight toward a specific feature.”

Unlike grants from other institutions, HFSP research grants don’t require that applicants submit preliminary experimental results. This encourages researchers to take risks and pursue the big questions in their fields, said Basille.

HFSP funded only four percent of grant applications this year, Basille said. The research team will begin work on the project in July.

Photo courtesy of Samantha Patrick

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

 

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