puffins use tidal currents to save energy while hunting for fish

A study by MaREI researchers and the Zoological Society of London, published in The Royal Society Biology Letters shows for the first time that a colony of puffins off Ireland’s southeast coast has adapted their behaviour to use the strong tidal currents in the Irish Sea when searching for food.

The research reveals that puffins can drastically reduce effort and save up to 46% of their usual energy usage.

The two-year study between MaREI, the SFI research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine (UCC) and the conservation charity, ZSL, concentrated on puffins from Little Saltee, Co Wexford.

Using GPS,  the findings reveal that the puffins use strong tidal currents for a ‘free ride’ across feeding areas.

Endangered species

Previous seabird tracking studies have shown that birds often travel large distances to find food, requiring considerable effort particularly for puffins whose wings are short and more adapted for swimming underwater to chase down their preferred food, sandeels.

Lead study author, Ashley Bennison, MaREI, believes these Saltee puffins have “completely dispensed” with the need to fly between feed areas.

Alison Debney, ZSL’s senior conservation manager (UK & Europe) added that puffins are listed as an endangered species in Europe and that enough is known about their behaviour.

“This is the first time anyone has GPS tracked puffins in Ireland.”

Energy saving of up to 46% ” is considerable”, added Dr Mark Jessopp, study coordinator.

“It’s easy to see how this behaviour is advantageous, but it’s unclear exactly how the behaviour [has] spread through the local population – whether through social cues or individual learning independently.”

The study concludes that this behaviour is likely to be found elsewhere, and in other animal groups, now that it’s known what to look for:

“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,” said Bennison.