A wandering albatross lands at a nest site on South Georgia Island, Antarctica. Photograph by Paul Souders, Corbis.
Forget circumnavigating the globe in 80 days—an albatross can do it in a mere 46!
These world travelers are among the largest flying birds, weighing up
to 25 pounds (11 kilograms), and with a wingspan of 11 feet (3 meters).
But hefting such huge bodies off the ground takes a lot of energy. If albatrosses flew simply by flapping their wings, they would lose about half their body mass fueling that kind of flight.
So how do these kings of the sky
complete such long journeys so quickly? It turns out they glide in a
specific flight pattern that allows them to harness wind energy, gliding
right above the sea’s surface to stay aloft, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Coasting Through Life
A team of scientists from the Technische Universitat Munchen in Munich, Germany,
used aerospace engineering to reveal the birds’ unique flight
patterns—a physical feat that has puzzled academics for years. By
attaching GPS trackers to 20 wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) in the wild, the researchers were able to study data from 16 of the birds as they left and returned to the Kerguelen Archipelago (map) in the Indian Ocean.
Albatrosses yo-yo up and down in the
sky, taking advantage of momentum generated on their downhill glides in
order to climb back up against the wind. These constant up and
down changes in altitude keep the birds aloft without requiring much
effort. In fact, the propulsive force generated by such undulations is
about ten times greater than anything the albatross could create by
simply flapping its wings.
Working Harder, Not Smarter
But it’s a trick the rest of the animal
kingdom doesn’t often use. For example, hummingbirds weigh about 0.07
ounces (2.2 grams)—98 percent less than an albatross—and yet
their wings have to beat about 70 times per second to keep their little
bodies aloft. An albatross can go hours without flapping. Because of
this frantic motion, hummingbirds have to eat up to three times their body weight every day.
Even humans struggle with energy efficiency. “An elite cyclist at 60
percent of his maximum aerobic rate can only support 15 to 30 percent of
his energy needs with consumed sugars,” according to a LiveScience article. That means we have to refuel more often than the albatross, which can travel greater distances without working as hard.
While it took Jules Verne’s characters
just over two and a half months to circumnavigate the globe, an
albatross can do it in about half the time. Phileas Fogg and his trusty
sidekick Passepartout just can’t compete with these fantastic flyers!