Story at a glance

  • Loyally monogamous seabirds are “divorcing” at more than double the typical rate because of warming waters, according to new research.
  • Warmer ocean temperatures mean the black-browed albatrosses of the Falkland Islands have to travel longer distances for food and may fail to return to their partners in time for a breeding season.
  • Overall, the international albatross population is dwindling, and scientists have observed more homosexual pairings because the birds can’t find a mate of the opposite sex.

Climate change is driving some of the world’s most loyally monogamous creatures to “divorce” at higher rates than normal, according to new research.

In a new study, researchers found that climate change is heating up ocean waters around the Falkland Islands, where black-browed albatrosses live, and depleting the seabirds' food supply. Fish may struggle to breathe in warmer oceans, as there’s less oxygen available compared to cooler waters.

That means albatrosses must travel further for food, which can trigger stress and relationship breakdowns, according to the research.

Black-browed albatrosses typically mate for life, and the standard “divorce rate” is between 1 percent and 3 percent, usually brought on by breeding failures. But researchers found that, in years when waters were unusually warm, up to 8 percent of albatross couples split up, regardless of whether they had bred successfully.


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Researchers looked at more than 15,000 breeding wild breeding pairs over 15 years.

Because warming waters are forcing these birds to travel further for food, they may fail to return to their partners for a breeding season, Francesco Ventura, a researcher at University of Lisbon and co-author of the study, told The Guardian this week. That could drive their partners into the wings of someone new.

On top of that, albatrosses’ stress hormones increase when the climate is warmer and more harsh, and the birds may blame that feeling on their partners.

“We propose this partner-blaming hypothesis – with which a stressed female might feel this physiological stress, and attribute these higher stress levels to a poor performance of the male,” Ventura said.

Ventura and his colleagues’ research adds to other alarming findings that the international albatross population is waning.

“Their numbers are plummeting,” Graeme Elliot, principal science adviser at New Zealand’s department of conservation, told The Guardian. He’s been studying albatrosses in New Zealand’s waters for three decades.

Their dwindling numbers have also altered mating patterns, and Elliot has observed an increase in homosexual pairings in parts of the country.

“We’re getting male-male pairs amongst the birds on Antipodes Island, which we haven’t had before,” he said. “A few percent of the boys are pairing up with another boy because they can’t find a female partner.”


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Published on Nov 24, 2021