What Diving Seabirds Can Tell Us About Our Own Longevity
July 2, 2012

What Diving Seabirds Can Tell Us About Our Own Longevity

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redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Diving seabirds reach their 30s and then die swiftly and unexpectedly, showing little signs of aging prior to their death. Studying these birds could help us understand the aging process and provide critical insights for our aging citizens.

Researchers studied Guillemots — which look similar to penguins but can fly — over four summers. During this time, they periodically tracked Brünnich's guillemots' fitness, recording depth and for how long they would dive for prey, how far and fast they would fly, and how much energy they used on these activities. They also looked for changes in the birds' behavior and metabolism.

Guillemots have the highest flight outlay of any bird and use large amounts of energy for diving. Their high metabolisms and frequent dives should produce oxidative stress, causing the birds to weaken as they age. However, the researchers discovered that the birds stay fit and active as they grow older, maintaining their flying, diving, and foraging abilities.

Kyle Elliott, a PhD student at the University of Manitoba and the study's lead author, said, "Most of what we know about aging is from studies of short-lived round worms, fruit flies, mice, and chickens, but long-lived animals age differently. We need data from long-lived animals, and one good example is long-lived seabirds."

Elliott also said, "Not only do these birds live very long, but they maintain their energetic lifestyle in a very extreme environment into old age."

One bird, nicknamed 'Wayne Gretzky' by the researchers (after the Canadian hockey great who played 20 seasons and because the bird's band of colors matched Gretzky's team colors), raised young for 18 uninterrupted years.

The findings will be presented today at the Society for Experimental Biology meeting in Salzburg.