Fishing in the dark: A pursuit-diving seabird modifies foraging behaviour in response to nocturnal light levels.

  • October 26, 2011
  • by Regular, P. M., Hedd, A., & Montevecchi, W. A.

Visual predators tend not to hunt during periods when efficiency is compromised by low light levels. Yet common murres, a species considered a diurnal visual predator, frequently dive at night. To study foraging of murres under different light conditions, we used a combination of archival tagging methods and astronomical models to assess relationships between diving behaviour and light availability. During diurnal and crepuscular periods, murres used a wide range of the water column (2–177 m), foraging across light intensities that spanned several orders of magnitude (103–10−10 Wm−2). Through these periods, they readily dived under conditions equivalent to ambient moonlight (∼10−4 Wm−2) but rarely under conditions equivalent to starlight (∼10−8 Wm−2). At night, murres readily foraged during both moonlit and starlit periods, and diving depth and efficiency increased with nocturnal light intensity, suggesting that night diving is at least partially visually guided. Whether visually guided foraging is possible during starlit periods is less clear. Given the dense prey landscape available, random-walk simulations suggest that murres could benefit from random prey encounters. We hypothesise that murres foraging through starlit periods rely either on close-range visual or possibly nonvisual cues to acquire randomly encountered prey. This research highlights the flexibility of breeding common murres and raises questions about the strategies and mechanisms birds use to find prey under very low light conditions.