Last month, scientists tracked a tireless bird’s nonstop migration from Alaska to New Zealand. That bird, a male bar-tailed godwit, set a new record for nonstop avian migration when it flew 7,500 miles over the Pacific Ocean without taking a single pitstop, reports Daniel Boffey for The Guardian.
Last year, researchers from the Global Flyway Network, a conservation group that tracks the migration of shorebirds, tracked the bird by outfitting it with a custom set of colorful bands around its legs. The bird—known as 4BBRW for the colors of the bands on its legs: two blue, one red, and one white—was also equipped with a tiny satellite tag that tracked its every move. The data revealed that the bird reached a max speed of 55 miles per hour and flew nonstop for 11 days, likely without sleeping, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo.
The previous record was set by a female bar-tailed godwit in 2007 who flew 7,250 miles during her migration, reports Chris Baynes for the Independent. Scientists say that for this year’s record-breaker, strong easterly winds likely lengthened his journey, helping him break the record.
Bar-tailed godwits spend their summers in the Arctic, where they breed and build up their energy reserves. By feasting on mollusks, crustaceans and worms along the shore, the godwits are able to double in size, half of which is fat. To compensate for that extra weight, their bodies shrink some of the organs that won’t be of much use during their trip, such as the stomach and liver.
When they’re ready for takeoff, they’ll fly over the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and head south to spend a warm winter in New Zealand. In March, the birds will leave the island and fly over Australia, along Asia’s east coast, and through Russia before completing their migratory loop in Alaska. For that return trip, they’ll make stops along the way to refuel.
As arduous as these treks across the Pacific Ocean may seem, bar-tailed godwits are uniquely adapted to complete these major feats.
“They have an incredibly efficient fuel-to-energy rate,” Jesse Conklin, a scientist with the Global Flyway Network, tells The Guardian. “They are designed like a jet fighter. [They have] long, pointed wings and a really sleek design, which gives them a lot of aerodynamic potential.”
As scientists work to better understand avian migration, they are still curious about how migratory birds are able to navigate halfway across the globe year after year. They seem to have “internal compasses that sense earth’s magnetic field,” reports Gizmodo. Conklin tells The Guardian that birds seem to have an “onboard map.”
“They are flying over open ocean for days and days in the mid-Pacific; there is no land at all,” Conklin says. “Then they get to New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea where there are quite a few islands and, we might be anthropomorphising, but it really looks like they start spotting land and sort of think: ‘Oh, I need to start veering or I will miss New Zealand.’"