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Among seabirds, there is a great diversity in flying and foraging styles, and these differences are easily apparent at the morphological level. Species such as albatross are phenomenal soarers with long, low aspect ratio wings, but they are poor divers and so are constrained to forage on prey at the very surface of the water. In contrast, diving seabirds such as alcids are poor fliers as their short wings have evolved to propel the birds while underwater. In between these two extremes are the foot propelled and plunge divers which have various levels of skill as fliers and/or divers. This project is interested in better understanding the impact of flight and swim style on wing morphology and physiology through an examination of muscle structure and function. Increased reliance on wings for underwater locomotion vs aerial soaring is associated with large changes in wing size and shape; it is also likely associated with shifts in the muscle fiber types and biochemical profiles to support motion in a high drag/high resistance media. These changes may also be reflected at the level of single muscle fibers, where adaptations that promote strength and fatigue resistance while allowing for efficient O2 use would be favoured. Such adaptations would increase the efficiency of underwater locomotion, and may be critical determinants of habitat niche. Physiological and morphological differences in wing shape, flying, and foraging efficiency may also influence time-energy budgets and prey selection. If so, understanding physiological adaptations among the seabird clade may shed light on which types or species are more (or less) vulnerable to shifts in the distribution (geographic or depth) of their preferred prey.
Participants: Assoc. Prof. John Arnould (PI), Assoc. Prof. Jennifer Burns (University of Alaska, Anchorage), Dr Jan West