Irish puffins ditch flying altogether when foraging for food

10 Jul 2019

Puffins tracked as part of the study along the Irish coast. Image: Ashley Bennison/MaREI

Researchers have discovered that Irish puffins are now using tidal currents to drift between food patches instead of flying to save energy.

Energy efficiency isn’t just a human pursuit, as the animal kingdom has shown once again. An international research team has completed a two-year study to show that puffins feeding off the southeast coast of Ireland have taken the considerable step of ditching flight while foraging for food.

Instead, the birds use the strong tidal currents found in the Irish Sea to catch a ‘free ride’ as they travel between major feeding areas. In doing so, they conserve almost half their usual energy used when flying. The team behind this discovery comprised researchers from the Science Foundation Ireland marine and energy research centre, MaREI, University College Cork and the Zoological Society of London.

The birds were tracked using GPS in the area of Little Saltee in Co Wexford. The study builds upon previous studies that showed birds travel between often distant patches at sea where they concentrate feeding. Such flights are considerably draining, especially for puffins whose short wings are better adapted to chasing down underwater food such as sand eels.

First puffins tracked using GPS in Ireland

The team said that this discovery was historic as it’s the first time puffins – considered an endangered species in Europe – have been tracked using GPS in Ireland.

Speaking of what this complete change of tactic means for the puffin, the study’s coordinator Dr Mark Jessopp said: “This saving is considerable, and it is easy to see how this behaviour is advantageous, but it is unclear exactly how the behaviour spread through the local population, whether through social cues or individuals learning independently.”

The findings in this study – published to Biology Letters – now suggest that this behaviour is likely found in other puffin populations.

MaREI researcher and lead author of the study, Ashley Bennison, said: “We have long suspected that animals are able to adapt their foraging behaviour to the local environment, and this is an excellent example of how animals can surprise us with their ingenuity.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic