Climate change has many pleading that we think of the children – and now this warning extends to young birds, as it appears that the climate crisis could cause an uptick in albatross divorce rates. These birds, normally monogamous, may be more likely to cut and run when things get tough as changes in the environment put extra stress on their relationship.
Divorces like these are something that socially monogamous species employ when it becomes apparent that there’s a disconnect between them and their partner. This could be failing fecundity – that is, the ability to produce offspring – or unhealthy chicks.
Where the climate crisis comes in is the significant influence environmental changes can have on the birthrate of wild animals and the health of their offspring. We see it in reptiles such as crocodiles and turtles, whose eggs hatch underground. Increasing temperatures have seen broods cooked alive in some of the areas worst affected by climate change.
To investigate if the climate crisis could have an influence on the success rates of black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) the researchers on a new paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B looked at longitudinal data collected since 2003.
By analyzing historic trends in reproductive and divorce rates for black-browed albatross, they were able to establish that albatross couples were more likely to divorce after breeding failures. Curiously, divorce rates were also negatively affected by the environment, seeing an uptick regardless of their previous success/failure rate.
Albatross divorce rates also increased in years with warm sea surface temperature anomalies, even among females in reproductively successful relationships. With some species of albatross famously spending up to five consecutive years at sea, it’s easy to see how warming temperatures here could be detected by the birds.
“For the first time, to our knowledge, we document the disruptive effects of challenging environmental conditions on the breeding processes of a monogamous population, potentially mediated by higher reproductive costs, changes in phenology and physiological stress,” wrote the study authors. “Environmentally driven divorce may therefore represent an overlooked consequence of global change.”
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the black-browed albatross is currently considered of Least Concern, painting a positive picture for their population at the time of writing. However, if the climate crisis continues to cause frequent and premature albatross divorce, the future generation of these striking seabirds could be thrown into question.