Science

“Shy” albatrosses prefer divorce over fighting to save their mate

“We are showing for the first time in wild animals the link between personality and divorce,” Ruijiao Sun, first author of the study, published in Biology Letters of the British Royal Society, told AFP. Diomedea Exulans, the great screaming albatross, is nevertheless a model of fidelity. Divorces there are “very rare”: about 13% among the population studied by an ecologist, a doctoral student at the Woods Hole American Institute of Oceanography. If 90% of birds are monogamous, then sailors are all without exception. But life as a couple is not smooth, even for the latter.

A “shy” albatross is twice as likely to breed as a “brave” albatross.

Research has revealed an “adaptive” divorce regime, in the language of experts, that is, motivated by the eternal imperative of procreation. For example, “if a bird finds that its chances of breeding with a certain partner are too low, it may seek another,” Ruijiao Song says. One study found this behavior in black-browed albatrosses.

Nothing like this here. On the other hand, the personality of a person who is more or less shy “is one of the predisposing factors for divorce,” marine biologist Stephanie Genouvrier, co-author of the study, explains to AFP. In this case, a “shy” albatross is twice as likely to get divorced as a “brave” one.

Photograph of a giant albatross chick (left) and its mother taken on July 1, 2007 in a nest on Possion Island, Crozet archipelago, French Southern and Antarctic lands. (AFP – MARCEL MOCHET)

To test this and explain it, the researchers used a world-unique database created by the Chize Biological Research Center, which is dependent on the University of La Rochelle, and the French Paul-Émile Victor Polar Institute.

Since 1959, their members have been recording the hardships of a colony of large albatrosses that settled on Possion Island, in the icy waters of the Crozet archipelago, one of the French southern and Antarctic lands. “We number them and map them every year with the location of their nest, they are not shy, and by approaching slowly we can make a lot of observations,” says Stephanie Genouvrier, who has worked in the center of Chise for a long time.

“Some are very brave, some are very shy, and most are in the middle.”

In this way, researchers can “reconstruct the entire history of these birds” from their birth to extinction, she explains. Because Diomedea Exulans, which can live up to 50 years, has its own habits. Once paired, they breed “every two years because they need a year to raise their only young before taking a year off, but separately before the pair reunite,” explains Ruijiao Sun.

And this is where things get complicated. Males and females will glide for months with their wingspan of more than three meters, covering several hundred kilometers a day over the waters of the southern Indian Ocean. But in some areas, males are south of females, who seek food in waters more often visited by trawlers using trolling rods. And there, “if an albatross tries to catch the bait, it drowns,” explains Stephanie Genouvrier.

As a result, the large albatross population is predominantly male, and a certain number of widowers clearly do not intend to remain so for too long. This is where the personality factor comes into play. The researchers measured this in nearly 2,000 people over a ten-year period, with a human approach response scale of up to five meters. From the most “daring” who ignores the intruder, to the most “timid” who abandons the nest, which is very rare.

“Some are very brave, some are very shy, and most are in the middle,” says Ruijiao San. Comparing these rates with divorce rates, the researchers concluded that “shy men get divorced more often than bold men.” A shy man in a relationship will prefer to act English rather than confront a widower who needs the company of the opposite sex.

However, the personalities of the main characters do not explain everything. “There are other factors at play,” notes Stephanie Genouvrier, “people in long-term relationships are less likely to get divorced than younger couples.”

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