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Study finds climate change is causing some albatrosses to divorce

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The albatross is a species of seabird known for its large size, but these birds are also notable because they mate for life.

FRANCESCO VENTURA: Well, albatrosses are probably the epitome of love in the animal kingdom. They are strictly socially monogamous.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Francesco Ventura is a Ph.D. student at the University of Lisbon. He studies albatrosses in the Falkland Islands off of Argentina.

VENTURA: They form these amazing long-term bonds, often lifelong bonds.

KING: Bonds that last for decades. Males and females raise their chicks together.

VENTURA: They can't do it alone. They help each other and raise a healthy chick that is ready to fledge and take the sea.

KING: But, just like human beings, sometimes they do split up.

MARTINEZ: Believe it or not, the scientific term for when an albatross couple calls it quits is divorced. It's not common, but it usually happens when the pair fails to breed. And now a new study from Ventura and his team finds there's another cause for albatross divorce.

VENTURA: Divorce is affected by the environment in a direct way. There is a direct pathway linking the environment to divorce and, in particular, higher sea surface temperatures to divorce.

KING: That's right, sea surface temperatures. Ventura says in years when the ocean surface is warmer, it's harder for the albatrosses to find food, which means they are taking longer to get back to their breeding grounds. And that causes their mates to sometimes move on to new love interests.

MARTINEZ: Ventura also thinks stress hormones come into play. Those hormones spike when albatrosses have trouble finding food.

VENTURA: Higher levels of stress hormones in females might lead them to misinterpret this higher stress as a poor performance by the partner and therefore divorce.

KING: Ventura says climate change makes this especially worrying.

VENTURA: We know that the global oceans are warming up, and they are predicted to further warm up in the future.

KING: Now, albatross divorce may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of climate change.

VENTURA: But climate can surprise us in so many ways, and the idea that we've got it under control, I think it's a bit arrogant. So we need to understand that there are things that are well beyond our current understanding and that things might get surprisingly bad.

MARTINEZ: Ventura isn't worried the birds he studies will start to dwindle because of higher divorce rates, but he does worry for other smaller albatross populations.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW CENTURY CLASSICS' "CHILDREN OF AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.