Much loved by human teenagers, the mobile phone network is providing ecologists with their first clues about where juvenile seabirds travel before they settle down to breed. The results, presented today at the British Ecological Society annual meeting in Edinburgh, will help seabird conservation.
The study of Northern gannets, led by Dr Jana Jeglinski of the University of Glasgow, sheds new light on how young creatures behave -- a largely unstudied area of ecology. "Juvenile behaviour and ecology is a real frontier -- we have almost no information on the ecology, behaviour and movement of young animals in general and seabirds in particular," she explains.
We now know that many young seabirds visit different colonies before deciding where to breed as adults. Understanding where these youngsters travel, and the role they play in linking single colonies into a network, could help protect seabird breeding populations better. However, tracking the erratic and wide-ranging flights of these feathered teenagers has been almost impossible until now.
"Young gannets are literally roaming the seas between Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, the UK, Denmark and Norway -- and even down the West African coast. Using GPS mobile phone tags is the only method that makes sense for tracking their unpredictable, large-scale movements with high precision," Jeglinski says.
Together with colleagues from Exeter, Leeds and Kiel, she tagged 30 young birds across three different colonies -- Bass Rock in Scotland, Grassholm off the Pembrokeshire coast and Heligoland in Germany -- with a novel design of tag fitted with a SIM card to communicate with the mobile phone network worldwide.
Data from the tags showed that one third of the birds cover vast distances to visit colonies other than their own, often flying up to 1,500km at a time and travelling up to 15,600km in the two months of the study.
"We even downloaded data using mobile phone networks generated by oil and gas platforms in the middle of the North Sea," says Jeglinski.
The results reveal for the first time the complex movements between different colonies and just how far young birds are willing to fly to explore potential breeding sites. They also show that rather than single entities, gannet colonies are in fact networks of colonies linked by the long prospecting flights that some juvenile birds make.
The data will help ecologists understand the different risks that juvenile and adult seabirds face, says Jeglinski: "Young birds use different and much larger marine areas than adult breeding birds, and thus will be exposed to very different threats during their prospecting period."
Found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean from Norway to the equator, the Northern gannet is the largest member of the gannet family. It is ideal for this research because of its long pre-breeding period -- it does not settle down to breed for around five years -- and its large size, which means it can easily carry the GPS GSM tag used to monitor its movement.
Dr Jana Jeglinski will present the team's findings at the British Ecological Society's annual meeting at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Tuesday 15 December 2015.
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