Albatrosses, some of the world’s most loyally monogamous creatures, are “divorcing” more often, with researchers blaming global warming.
In a new Royal Society study, researchers say that climate change is pushing black-browed albatross break-up rates higher.
Typically after choosing a partner, only 1 to 3 percent would separate in search of greener romantic pastures, but in the years with unusually warm water temperatures, that average consistently rose, with up to 8 percent of couples splitting up, the study showed.
The study looked at a wild population of 15,500 breeding pairs in the Falkland Islands over 15 years.
For seabirds, warmer waters mean less fish, less food and a harsher environment. Fewer chicks survive. The birds’ stress hormones increase. They are forced farther afield to hunt.
As some of the most loyal partners of the animal kingdom, the love lives of albatrosses have long been a subject of scientific study.
“There are all these things we think of as being super-duper human,” said New Zealand Department of Conservation principal science adviser Graeme Elliot, who has been studying albatrosses in the country’s waters for three decades.
The birds lend themselves to anthropomorphism as they normally live for 50 to 60 years, have a long, awkward teen phase as they learn how to find a mate through dance, and take years-long trips away from home as they mature.
They usually mate for life and loudly celebrate when greeting a partner after a long absence.
However, they increasingly share another rite of passage that might sound familiar to young people. Working longer hours to eat and faced with the logistical difficulties of a traveling partner, some are struggling to maintain relationships.
Francesco Ventura, a researcher at the University of Lisbon and coauthor of the Royal Society study, said the researchers were surprised to learn that warmer waters were associated with unusually high rates of albatross couples splitting up, even when the lack of fish were accounted for.
Albatross divorce was usually predicted by a reproductive failure, Ventura said.
If a pair failed to produce a chick, they had a higher chance of splitting up. Less food for birds could lead to more failures.
However, the researchers found that even when they accounted for that, higher water temperatures were having an extra effect — pushing up divorce rates even when reproduction was successful.
Ventura floated two possible reasons:
First, warming waters were forcing the birds to hunt for longer and fly further.
If birds then failed return for a breeding season, their partners might move on with a new bird.
Added to that, when waters are warmer and in harsher environments, albatross stress hormones go up.
The birds might feel that and blame their partner, Ventura said.
“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,” he said.
The research comes as many international albatross populations are in trouble.
“Their numbers are plummeting,” Elliot said, blaming less prey, warming seas and increasing encounters with tuna line-fishing boats, which accidentally catch and kill the birds.
Elliot hopes that some of the sympathies people have for albatrosses could motivate changes in people’s behavior.
“We kind of need an international campaign to save these birds,” he said. “If we don’t turn it around, they’ll go extinct.”
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