7000 Miles Non-Stop, and No Pretzels

From The NY Times, by Carl Zimmer:

In 1976, the biologist Robert E. Gill Jr. came to the southern coast of Alaska to survey the birds preparing for their migrations for the winter. One species in particular, wading birds called bar-tailed godwits, puzzled him deeply. They were too fat.

“They looked like flying softballs,” said Mr. Gill.

At the time, scientists knew that bar-tailed godwits spend their winters in places like New Zealand and Australia. To get there, most researchers assumed, the birds took a series of flights down through Asia, stopping along the way to rest and eat. After all, they were land birds, not sea birds that could dive for food in the ocean. But in Alaska, Mr. Gill observed, the bar-tailed godwits were feasting on clams and worms as if they were not going to be able to eat for a very long time.

“I wondered, why is that bird putting on that much fat?” he said.

Mr. Gill wondered if the bar-tailed godwit actually stayed in the air for a much longer time than scientists believed. It was a difficult idea to test, because he could not actually follow the birds in flight. For 30 years he managed as best he could, building a network of bird-watchers who looked for migrating godwits over the Pacific Ocean. Finally, in 2006, technology caught up with Mr. Gill’s ideas. He and his colleagues were able to implant satellite transmitters in bar-tailed godwits and track their flight.

The transmitters sent their location to Mr. Gill’s computer, and he sometimes stayed up until 2 in the morning to see the latest signal appear on the Google Earth program running on his laptop. Just as he had suspected, the bar-tailed godwits headed out over the open ocean and flew south through the Pacific. They did not stop at islands along the way. Instead, they traveled up to 7,100 miles in nine days — the longest nonstop flight ever recorded. “I was speechless,” Mr. Gill said.

Since then, scientists have tracked a number of other migrating birds, and they are beginning now to publish their results. Those results make clear that the bar-tailed godwit is not alone. Other species of birds can fly several thousand miles nonstop on their migrations, and scientists anticipate that as they gather more data in the years to come, more birds will join these elite ranks.

“I think it’s going to be a number of examples,” said Anders Hedenström of Lund University in Sweden.

As more birds prove to be ultramarathoners, biologists are turning their attention to how they manage such spectacular feats of endurance. Consider what might be the ultimate test of human endurance in sports, the Tour de France: Every day, bicyclists pedal up and down mountains for hours. In the process, they raise their metabolism to about five times their resting rate.

The bar-tailed godwit, by contrast, elevates its metabolic rate between 8 and 10 times. And instead of ending each day with a big dinner and a good night’s rest, the birds fly through the night, slowly starving themselves as they travel 40 miles an hour.

“I’m in awe of the fact that birds like godwits can fly like this,” said Theunis Piersma, a biologist at the University of Groningen.

Graphics by ERIN AIGNER, JONATHAN CORUM and SERGIO PEÇANHA. Read the rest, here.

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