The roller coaster flight strategy of bar-headed geese conserves energy during Himalayan migrations

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Science  16 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6219, pp. 250-254
DOI: 10.1126/science.1258732

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Geese need to hug the land to fly high

Animal migrations provide numerous examples of astonishing feats. Impressive even among these is the migration of bar-headed geese across the Himalayan Mountains, which reach heights of thousands of meters. Bishop et al. remotely monitored birds' heart rates, movement, and body temperature during migration. The geese “hug” the landforms, taking advantage of drafting and wind patterns. This unexpected strategy conserves energy, even though it means the geese repeatedly lose, and must then regain, altitude.

Science, this issue p. 250


The physiological and biomechanical requirements of flight at high altitude have been the subject of much interest. Here, we uncover a steep relation between heart rate and wingbeat frequency (raised to the exponent 3.5) and estimated metabolic power and wingbeat frequency (exponent 7) of migratory bar-headed geese. Flight costs increase more rapidly than anticipated as air density declines, which overturns prevailing expectations that this species should maintain high-altitude flight when traversing the Himalayas. Instead, a “roller coaster” strategy, of tracking the underlying terrain and discarding large altitude gains only to recoup them later in the flight with occasional benefits from orographic lift, is shown to be energetically advantageous for flights over the Himalayas.

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