Home alone

By Tim Thwaites in Melbourne IT SEEMS reasonable that parents should take a short holiday to recover from the rigours of raising offspring. But researchers in Australia have found that short-tailed shearwaters in Tasmania take this to extremes. The birds abandon chicks to make a 15 000 kilometre return trip to Antarctica. Nick Klomp and Mark Schultz of Charles Sturt University in New South Wales discovered the birds’ destination using satellites to track three birds. Klomp told this month’s ScienceNOW!, an Australian National Science Forum, that this solves a mystery surrounding the shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris), a common seabird in Australia. Shearwater pairs raise only one chick each year. From records of visits to burrows, Klomp and Schultz knew that each parent feeds the chick for two or three nights in a row, then embarks on a foraging trip of up to three weeks. This means that sometimes both parents are away for several weeks, leaving the chick unattended. Klomp believes the parents take off because attending the chick can put their own lives at risk. By the time the chicks are deserted for good, they typically weigh 800 to 900 grams, up to 50 per cent more than the parents. While feeding the chicks, the adults lose condition and weight. Eventually, the risk to the adults’ own survival and ability to rear future offspring outweighs the dangers to their chick. In Antarctica, they can fatten up on krill, a dependable high-energy, high-protein food. The parents don’t completely forget their young, however. As a souvenir of their holiday,
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