Flexibility in otherwise consistent non-breeding movements of a long-distance migratory seabird, the long-tailed skua

R. van Bemmelen*, B. Moe, S.A. Hanssen, N.M. Schmidt, J. Hansen, J. Lang, B. Sittler, L. Bollache, I. Tulp, R. Klaassen, O. Gilg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Quantifying within- and between-individual variation in animal migration strategies is a first step towards our understanding of the ability of migrants to adjust to changes in the environment. We studied consistency (or, conversely, flexibility) in movement patterns at large (>1000 km) to meso-scales (100−1000 km) during the non-breeding season of the long-tailed skua Stercorarius longicaudus, a long-distance migratory Arctic seabird, using light-based geolocation. We obtained 97 annual tracks of 38 individuals and quantified similarity between routes. Overall, tracks of the same individual were generally within about 200 to 300 km of their previous year’s route, and more similar than tracks of different individuals. Some flexibility was observed during migration, but individuals were faithful to their staging areas in the North Atlantic and in the Benguela Current off Namibia and South Africa. Over the course of the winter, an increasing number of individuals started to deviate—up to 5200 km—from the previous year’s route. Intriguingly, individuals could be highly consistent between 2 consecutive years and flexible between other years. Site-shifts in late winter seem to reflect responses to local conditions, but what promotes this larger flexibility remains unclear and requires further study. Our results show that individual long-tailed skuas are generally consistent in their itineraries, but can show considerable flexibility in some years. The flexibility in itineraries suggests that long-tailed skuas are able to adjust to environmental change, but the mechanisms leading to the observed within- and between-individual variation in movement patterns are still poorly understood.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)197-211
JournalMarine Ecology Progress Series
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • individual consistency
  • Repeatability
  • Stercorarius longicaudus
  • Seabirds
  • tracking
  • non-breeding movements
  • Flexibility

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