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New Wake Forest Study Takes Students On Flight With The Albatross

January 12, 1998
Wake Forest University
Wake Forest University biologist David Anderson normally does his field studies of seabirds in the wild without much company, but that's soon about to change. In just a few weeks, Anderson - and thousands of elementary school classrooms in the United States - will begin satellite tracking two species of albatross that nest on Tern Island in Hawaii.

Wake Forest University biologist David Anderson normally does his fieldstudies of seabirds in the wild without much company, but that's soon aboutto change.

In just a few weeks, Anderson - and thousands of elementary schoolclassrooms in the United States - will begin satellite tracking two speciesof albatross that nest on Tern Island in Hawaii.

Supported by a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, WakeForest's Albatross Project is expected not only to spark students' interestin science but shed light on such questions as how the availability of foodaffects the seabirds' reproduction and how their populations can beprotected from declines attributed to longline fishing fleets plying Pacificwaters for tuna, broadbill and other fish.

Anyone can participate in the study by typing "subscribe albatross" in thebody of an e-mail message to Or they can click on "Jointhe Project" at The Albatross Project's Web site at

"My motivation for doing this is three-fold," the Wake ForestUniversity scientist explained. "First, there are basic science questionsthat the data will help us answer. We know that albatross populations seemto be declining worldwide because of contact with fisheries, and if we candetermine where the feeding zones are, they can be targeted for some action.

"Second, I am interested in pre-college education and this project seemedthe perfect opportunity to engage school-age kids with our work," he said."And scientifically, the albatross has long been an interest to me as anevolutionary biologist because of their extremely slow reproduction.

"They put off breeding for the first time until they are seven oreight years old," he said. "The robin in your back yard is breeding thefirst year."

Anderson's project combines the high-tech of orbiting satellites andtiny transmitters smaller than a dollar bill with the high-touch,interpersonal world of classroom learning.

Each time they pass over the northern Pacific, the Argos System'ssatellites will scan for the signals emitted by the seabirds' transmitters.If a positive contact is made, the satellite will note the strength of thesignal and then lock in the latitude and longitude, time and other data andtransmit it to receiving stations in Fairbanks, Alaska; Lannion, France; orWallops Island off the coast of Virginia.At 1 a.m. Eastern Standard Time each morning, a processing station inTollouse, France, will make the final electronic pass of The AlbatrossProject data from the receiving stations to Wake Forest's computer networkfor e-mail forwarding to schools and individuals subscribing to TheAlbatross Project's listserve at Wake Forest.

Patty Fernandez, a first year master's student in biology at WakeForest, will be the one posting the latitude, longitude and otherinformation for each bird to the schools and filtering questions andcomments from students for Anderson and other members of the research team.

"Every person who subscribes and gets some benefit makes me happy,"Anderson said. "It (the listserve) can be as big as it wants to be. Whowould have thought a kid could, in their class or at home, collect data onchlorophyll concentrations in the open ocean and see what is different aboutthe places the birds go and where they don't go?

"These birds have never been satellite tracked before, so they'll befinding out the answer to the big question, 'Where do they go when theyleave the nesting site?' along with us."

The data from Anderson's study will also be distributed by the GalaxyClassroom to its 600 subscribing elementary schools in the continentalUnited States, to another 600 fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms in theHawaii State Teleschool through the KidScience television program, and toseveral schools in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County system in North Carolina.

"One of our goals is to help students learn science by doing science," saidBill Schmitt, director of the Galaxy Classroom, which provides programmingin science and language arts to classrooms. "Through The AlbatrossProject, students will be doing science right along with scientists in thefield," he said.

"This is really one of the most exciting projects for kids at this agelevel that I've seen because it's almost impossible to get the opportunityto do that."

Patty Miller, the Hawaii State Teleschool teacher who produces KidScience,said that the unit on albatrosses will follow a study of reefs. "I will doa program right before the birds will be released and start transmitting,"she said. "I think The Albatross Project is cool. What teachers say isthat it gives them a reason to get in and use the Internet."

Through The Albatross Project's web site (,students will be able to plot the paths of the birds against surface watertemperature maps of the ocean and maps showing chlorophyll concentrations -found to be a factor in where the birds feed during Anderson's pilotsatellite tracking studies of another albatross species in the GalapagosIslands in 1995.

They will also be able to learn about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service'sNational Wildlife Refuge on Tern, read researchers' field notes, postquestions to the scientists and even use a program on the site to calculatethe energy cost to birds to fly with the 30-gram transmitters taped to theirbacks. They can also use the program to design a bird that could fly evenfaster and farther than the real thing.

Although some have already subscribed to The Albatross Project's listserve,the first transmissions from the birds are not expected until mid-January,said Paul Sievert, the postdoctoral student at the University ofMassachusetts who will place the transmitters on the birds in Anderson's study.

Sievert is flying to Tern on January 9 and plans to spend a week placingdummy transmitters on the Laysan and black-footed species of albatrossbefore releasing the birds for the study. A special adhesive tape will beused to place the transmitters between the wings in the center of theirbacks to avoid disrupting their balance, he said.

The transmitters could send data for as long as five or six monthsuntil their batteries run out.Anderson said that much of what is know about where the Hawaiianalbatrosses find food in the North Pacific has come from boat-basedobservations. But boats are too slow to follow the birds as they fly, andairplanes are too fast and have to be refueled too often to keep pace withforaging trips that can last from days to weeks.

From boats, biologists also cannot determine the age or sex of the birdsbeing observed or whether they are from Tern or strangers from anothernesting area.

That's why satellite tracking has proved so effective, Anderson said,recalling the satellite telephone hookup that allowed him to prepareresearchers in the Galapagos for the arrival of birds he had been followingat Wake Forest by e-mail in 1995."I'd say, 'You better be prepared for so-and-so to come back. Ten hoursfrom now this bird is going to be showing up on your island,'" he said."We'll be able to have the same kind of interaction here."

From tracking the albatross in the Galapagos, Anderson said that the birdscan fly the equivalent of a flight from New York to Miami - or San Diego toSeattle -- and back on a feeding trip.

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Materials provided by Wake Forest University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Wake Forest University. "New Wake Forest Study Takes Students On Flight With The Albatross." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 January 1998. <>.
Wake Forest University. (1998, January 12). New Wake Forest Study Takes Students On Flight With The Albatross. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 15, 2024 from
Wake Forest University. "New Wake Forest Study Takes Students On Flight With The Albatross." ScienceDaily. (accessed April 15, 2024).

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