Scientists have used a tiny camera mounted on the back of an albatross to record the first images of the birds scavenging next to a killer whale in the Southern Ocean.
Although scientists know albatrosses feed on squid, fish and krill, until recently they knew very little about how they find their prey.
‘The only way to find out is to either watch albatrosses from ships, which may be intrusive and not reflect their true behaviour, or to attach tiny instruments to the birds to get more detailed information,’ says Dr Richard Phillips, an albatross expert from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
Researchers attached a miniature digital camera onto the backs of four black-browed albatrosses breeding in colonies on Bird Island, South Georgia in the Southern Ocean. The camera was the size of a packet of polo mints and at 82 grams weighs less than 2.7 per cent of the total body weight of the birds.
One surprising finding was that some of the pictures show one of the albatrosses flying fairly close to a killer whale. Three other albatrosses were also following the killer whale in some of the images. The birds are almost certainly picking up scraps from the killer whale kill. Albatrosses can’t dive deeper than four or five metres, which means they’re generalist scavengers, feeding on whatever food they can find in the vastness of the Southern Ocean.
The researchers say the next step is to develop even smaller cameras that can be mounted on albatrosses’ heads. ‘Maybe we won’t get so many pictures of fluttering feathers if we can do that,’ says lead researcher, Dr Akinori Takahashi from the National Institute of Polar Research, Tokyo.