Extreme endurance flights by landbirds crossing the Pacific Ocean: ecological corridor rather than barrier?

Robert E Gill, T. Lee Tibbitts, David C Douglas, Colleen M Handel, Daniel M Mulcahy, Jon C Gottschalck, Nils Warnock, Brian J McCaffery, Philip F Battley, Theunis Piersma

Abstract

Mountain ranges, deserts, ice fields and oceans generally act as barriers to the movement of land-dependent animals, often profoundly shaping migration routes. We used satellite telemetry to track the southward flights of bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica baueri), shorebirds whose breeding and non-breeding areas are separated by the vast central Pacific Ocean. Seven females with surgically implanted transmitters flew non-stop 8117–11 680 km (10 153±1043 s.d.) directly across the Pacific Ocean; two males with external transmitters flew non-stop along the same corridor for 7008–7390 km. Flight duration ranged from 6.0 to 9.4 days (7.8±1.3 s.d.) for birds with implants and 5.0 to 6.6 days for birds with externally attached transmitters. These extraordinary non-stop flights establish new extremes for avian flight performance, have profound implications for understanding the physiological capabilities of vertebrates and how birds navigate, and challenge current physiological paradigms on topics such as sleep, dehydration and phenotypic flexibility. Predicted changes in climatic systems may affect survival rates if weather conditions at their departure hub or along the migration corridor should change. We propose that this transoceanic route may function as an ecological corridor rather than a barrier, providing a wind-assisted passage relatively free of pathogens and predators.

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Footnotes

  • Present address: Wildlife Health Center, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.

  • Present address: Ecology Group, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

    • Received August 14, 2008.
    • Accepted September 29, 2008.
  • This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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