Video of a gannet in flight

Amazing footage helps researchers make vital conservation discoveries. 

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Gannet in flight, UK.

This astonishing film was taking by a team from Exeter University headed by Dr Stephen Votier using a miniature camera attached to the back of a gannet. The technology has helped researchers make some startling discoveries.

Wasteful fishing practices, such as discarded fish thrown overboard, has helped certain species, including gulls, fulmars and skuas that are able to consume discards.

When Stephen Votier and colleagues at the University of Exeter first put cameras on gannets, the tiny machines filled up with salt water, such is the force of the birds’ 90kph dives. So they reattached the cameras pointing backwards, gaining new insights into gannets’ fishing expeditions from their huge Grassholm island colony off the Pembrokeshire coast.

Matching GPS data from gannet tags with fishing fleets showed how the birds sought out boats. When Votier caught returning birds, they regurgitated their last meal, revealing species such as haddock and whiting that they couldn’t ordinarily catch – proving that they fed on discards.

“It seems likely that discards have been good for gannets, but it’s not quite as straightforward as that,” says Votier. As with many long-lived seabirds, there are big differences in individual behaviour. Some gannets scavenge discarded fish, while others don’t, and males tend to scavenge more.

The birds have also evolved to feed on oily fish such as mackerel. Eating discarded cod and haddock, which have much lower fat content, might not meet their dietary needs. “It’s been argued that discards are a bit like junk food for gannets,” says Votier.

You can read more about the complexity of seabird conservation in the May issue of BBC Wildlife.

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