Unlike most seabirds, the frigatebird does not have waterproof feathers. Landing in the water during a transoceanic flight would quickly drown the bird, so instead they stay aloft. But until recently, scientists did not realize just how adept the birds are. Studying tagged frigatebirds in flight, researchers found that the birds could reach altitudes of 4000 meters and that they could soar without flapping for up to 64 kilometers! They achieve these heights by seeking out clouds, which mark strong atmospheric updrafts. The birds ride these thermals up to the cloud tops – well into freezing conditions – and then glide slowly back down.
Their bodies are impressively built for slow glides. Frigatebirds boast a low body weight for their large wing area. This ratio is known as wing loading, and it’s a fundamental characteristic of any flier, avian or otherwise. Low wing loading is key to gliding longer because it reduces the speed at which a glider loses altitude. (Image credit: D. Brossard; research credit: H. Weimarskirch et al.; via @skunkbear)