Fly or die: the role of fat stores in the growth and development of Grey-headed Albatross Diomedea chrysostoma chicks

Chicks of albatrosses, like other Procellariiformes, become independent at a mass similar to their parents but during growth attain a peak mass some 30% or more greater, before losing mass prior to fledging. The current views are that this high peak mass represents chicks storing fat reserves as an energy sink, or as an insurance against periodic food scarcity, or as a consequence of natural stochastic variation in provisioning rate. We analysed growth and body composition of Grey-headed Albatross Diomedea chrysostoma chicks at Bird Island, South Georgia in 1984 and 1986, two years of very different food availability. In 1984 when overall breeding success was only 28% (the lowest in 20 years and less than halt that in 1986), chicks were significantly smaller in terms of peak mass (by 37%), primary length (by 25%), liver, lung, heart and kidney size (by 18–34%) and fat (by 75–80%) but not significantly different in terms of skeletal (tarsus, culmen, ulna, sternum) or muscle (pectoral, leg) size. Despite these differences, there were some important similarities in the patterns of growth in both years. Up to the attainment of peak mass, most of the growth of organs and of skeletal structures was completed and little fat was deposited. In the remaining part of the chick-rearing period, feather growth and acquisition of fat stores were undertaken. Thus Grey-headed Albatross chicks begin to acquire substantial fat stores only during the later part of the development period; this is contrary to the predictions of any of the existing hypotheses concerning provisioning patterns and the role of fat stores in Procellariiformes. We propose that the deposition of fat in the later stages of chick growth is an adaptation to: (a) ensure against energy demands and/or nutritional stress affecting the quality of flight feathers (many of which are not renewed for up to three years after fledging); and (b) provide an energy reserve for chicks to use in the critical period immediately after independence.


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Authors: Reid, Keith, Prince, Peter A., Croxall, John P.

1 January, 2000
Ibis / 142
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