Think winter is tricky for humans?
Spare a thought for the poor old puffin.
Breeding issues, lack of prey and human intrusion have contributed to dwindling puffin populations in recent years and now the climate is wreaking havoc on them too.
Researchers at University College Cork (UCC) have discovered that the technicolour-billed seabirds lose their ability to fly for twice as long as previously believed, leaving them even more vulnerable to winter storms.
Puffins must shed and regrow their feathers when they wear and lose shape, a process known as moult. When they moult their wing feathers, they’re grounded (or stuck on the surface of the ocean) for up to two months every year – twice as long as previously believed.
The timing and location of the flightless moult of puffins has long been a mystery to scientists because it occurs when puffins are far from land and out of sight.
However, the Marine Ecology Group from the school of Biological Environmental and Earth Sciences and the MaREI Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre at UCC fit tracking devices to the birds to keep tabs on their activity.
The group, in collaboration with researchers from the UK and Norway, put tiny geolocators on the legs of puffins to record their behaviour.
“These loggers record time spent on the water or in flight every 10 minutes over the course of a year.” said lead author Jamie Darby.
“We were able to look for extended periods of time when puffins don’t fly at all to study where and when they were flightless.”
The results, published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, show that puffins were flightless from one to two months per year, something that is going to pose a major issue in years to come:
“Puffins are in decline, and often wash up dead on our coasts following severe weather. Winter cyclones in the North Atlantic are likely to become more frequent and more severe with climate change,” Mr Darby added.