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Determining the body condition of short-tailed shearwaters: Implications for migratory flight ranges and starvation events

  • Author(s): Baduini, CL;
  • Lovvrn, JR;
  • Hunt, J
  • et al.

Short-tailed shearwaters Puffinus tenuirostris migrate annually from breeding areas in southeast Australia and Tasmania to the Bering Sea to feed on abundant prey aggregations, mainly euphausiids. Occasionally thousands of shearwaters die of starvation en route, within, or on return from the Bering Sea. Collection of live and dead shearwaters in the southeastern Bering Sea in 1997, 1998, and 1999 allowed us to measure seasonal changes in energy reserves during a major mortality event. As birds lost body mass, lipid mass initially decreased faster than that of pectoralis muscle, but loss of pectoralis mass increased markedly at a body mass around 500 g when lipids were almost depleted (∼33 g remaining). Death occurred as body mass approached 426 g. Individuals near this body mass had lipid values permitting estimated flight ranges of 140 to 400 km, a range less than that potentially covered in 1 d by shearwaters searching for prey (440 to 1124 km d-1). Seasonal differences in body composition were most striking among body and bone marrow lipid contents, with the lowest values occurring during the die-off in fall 1997 and in fall 1998. The lack of shearwater mortality in fall 1998 may have resulted from more consistent winds that decreased flight costs and from greater availability of alternative fish prey. Our data allow estimates of usable energy stores and flight ranges based on lipid reserves in short-tailed shearwaters. Estimated flight ranges suggest that if feeding conditions are poor near Japan or near other termination points of the transequatorial migration routes shearwaters may have few reserves available to support foraging for food and starvation events may occur. Our findings suggest how their energetic strategies and migration are shaped by seasonal and annual variability of prey during transglobal movements of short-tailed shearwaters between oceanic regions.

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