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Teachers,

We know that the amount of information available on this website can be pretty overwhelming.  Questions arise such as: What do I need to know in order to teach this subject?  What handouts/materials do I need to be able to complete a particular activity?  How much time is required to teach an activity?   What is the purpose of this project?  All of these questions, as well as links to more detailed information are available on this activities page.  The following is a brief synopsis of the project history, suggested hypotheses for this experiment, and some fun facts to help you relate this project to the everyday lives of your students.

What is the Albatross Project?
The researchers working on this project have studied albatross colonies in a variety of locations since 1995.  Albatross populations have been declining in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands for several years.  Researchers hope to determine why this is happening.  They aim to identify the distribution and activities of birds at sea using satellite-tracking data.

Researchers use sensitive satellites in space, miniature transmitters on birds, and rapid email communications to investigate the travels of these animals on the open ocean.  The location of each bird is updated every 24 hours so scientists, students, and others throughout the world can plot the location of these amazing birds on maps.  Last year the scientists and their student colleagues showed that albatrosses nesting on Tern Island can travel thousands of kilometers in a matter of days.  Information continues to come in from birds with transmitters from the Tern Island study.  The most recent study began on January 22, 1999, from the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai, Hawaii.

Why do we want to know the answers to hard questions?
Scientists want to know why the albatross populations are declining and what is causing these declines for many reasons.  Seabirds are an important part of the marine ecology and their decline could be an indicator of problems that may affect other species.  Scientists also wonder if some commercial fishing techniques are affecting the albatross when they are on their long distance feeding trips.   The main questions that researchers hope to answer in the Hawaii Study are: How does the albatross feeding area relate to fishing techniques?  Why do the parents leave the nest for so long?  Where do the birds go anyway?

In order to focus their study of certain factors that affect the albatross, researchers develop hypotheses, or specific explanations that might or might not to be true, that can be tested and as a result supported or disgarded.  Disgarding a hypothesis can be as important as supporting one because it can give researchers new ideas and focus them on other possibilities.   Students can develop their own hypotheses and then see if the albatross in this study actually do what they expect them to do.  Go to The Scientific Problem section of this website for more details.

Kilauea Point is the only place in the main Hawaiian Islands that has had a successful albatross colony. Why is that?
Located more than 2,000 miles from the nearest large landmass, the Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated high islands in the world. This extreme isolation made it very difficult for plants and animals to colonize the islands. Each plant and animal that lives here in Hawaii got here one of three ways; by air (flying or wind), by water (swimming, or floating), and by people (accidentally or on purpose).  The species that got here by air or water are considered native species even if they are found in other places.  Species that were brought by humans are called introduced species.  Those that evolved on and are unique to Hawaii are called endemic.   Approximately 90% of native Hawaiian flowering plants are endemic or unique to the islands.

The Hawaiian Islands have been altered significantly from how they were before people arrived.  There are only two native mammals in Hawaii.   The two native mammal species are the Hawaiian bat and the monk seal. People brought in any other mammals that exist on the island.  Some animals such as rats and mice were brought in by accident.  Other species were brought in on purpose like pigs, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, dogs and cats.

The biggest challenge seabirds have when nesting is predation.  Tern Island doesn’t have mammal predators so the success rate of the albatrosses fledging, or leaving the nest, is very high. The albatross nest on the ground and they have no natural instinct of fear so they don’t realize that dogs, cats, rats, and mice will harm them.  When they first started finding albatross on Kauai the nesting success rate was low because predators got into the nests and killed the chicks and the adults.   Kilauea Point NWR has a predator proof fence around the refuge to keep out dogs and cats, and live traps throughout the refuge to catch cats, rats and mice.  After people started putting up fences to protect the area where the albatross nest the success rate increased.  A fence is how the Fish and Wildlife Service protect the seabirds that nest inside the refuge, but birds that nest in other areas are not so lucky.

What is a seabird?
There are several seabirds that nest in the Hawaiian Islands.   The Laysan and black-footed albatrosses are just one general type of seabird.   Others include the red-footed booby, great frigatebird, red-tailed tropicbird, white-tailed tropicbird, wedge-tailed shearwater, and several kinds of tern.

Each seabird nests in a different place on the island.   The red-footed booby nests in trees, the wedge-tailed shearwater nests in a burrow they dig underground, and albatrosses nest on the surface of the ground.  All seabirds spend much of their time at sea and find their food (fish and squid) on the open ocean.  They land on islands only because their offspring have to be on land until they can fly.  Just as the seabirds have different nesting habits, they all fish in different locations, and they all catch food in different ways.  The albatross is the bird that travels the longest distance from nesting islands to search for food.  It is these incredible monster trips that scientists want to learn more about.

How does it relate to me?
The website section Albatrosses at Work contains all kinds of interesting facts that will catch your students’ attention.  When they track birds to places like the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco Bay, or pick up trash for a mile as a related activity, students will be able to visualize how their actions on a daily basis affect not only the albatross, but all of the ecology around them.

You might discuss how trash, which kills many chicks who can’t regurgitate it, could get from San Francisco to chicks at Kilauea Point over 2400 miles away.  Some chicks have been found with over a pound of trash in their stomachs!  This could lead to a discussion of feeding techniques or transportation methods. Students can also relate how the albatross picks up that trash in the first place by discussing different food sources that various seabirds prefer.  The albatross is a surface feeder that has a special taste for squid.  Can the students think of anything else floating on the ocean that would look like a squid?  This could lead to a discussion on pollution and ways that the students can help protect this wildlife just by reducing, recycling, and reusing.

There are many cool facts that students can relate to.  Some of these stem from questions that students in the past have posed to the researchers.  One student asked when the albatross sleeps on these long journeys. This may be the focus of another study later on! They think the albatross uses its bilateral brain to let half of its brain "sleep" while the other half concentrates on flight.  Think of how much we could accomplish if we could do that!  Another question asked was how the birds know where they are going. That has been the focus of several studies, which determined that they use magnetic fields to navigate and can use the stars as a backup map.  You could relate this method of navigation to using a compass and work on map reading and orienteering skills with your class.

Discovering ways to find this information without hurting the animals is a challenge!   Maybe your students can come up with a "better mousetrap" or technique to gather information.  Have them develop a hypothesis and then figure out what kind of technology would be required to test that hypothesis.

There is a special relationship that the students gain if they are actually tracking one or more of the birds using the satellite data provided on email.  They will be more likely to work to protect a specific bird when they are watching its progress and rooting for it to get back to the nest.  These are just a few suggestions for links to connect your students with the ecosystem they are a part of.  We know that you have many more ideas about ways to make this information exciting and engaging for your students.  If you would like to share those ideas with other educators, please email us at Ann_Hudgins@fws.gov and we will get that information here on the Activities Page ASAP!