Flightlessness and the energetic cost of wing molt in a large sea duck

M Guillemette, D Pelletier, JM Grandbois, Patrick Butler

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64 Citations (Scopus)


Although the replacement of feathers apparently represents the major event of somatic production in the annual cycle of wild birds, knowledge about the energetics of molt has always been hampered by logistical and technical difficulties, which are exacerbated by the fact that birds are able to compensate behaviorally to buffer any variation in energy demand. During wing molt, sea ducks (Mergini) and other diving birds lose all of their wing feathers at once, leading to a period of temporary flightlessness of variable duration, a condition that considerably restricts their movements and increases the probability of predation. In the present study, we present the first results aimed at quantifying the duration of flightlessness, energy expenditure, and foraging effort during molt of a wing-propelled diving bird, the Common Eider (Somateria mollissima). Data loggers were implanted in the body cavity of 13 females to record heart rate and hydrostatic pressure (depth) every two seconds for a period of 220 days. Flight frequency and duration were assessed from elevated and constant heart rate, and the absence of. light was used to quantify the duration of flightlessness, which lasted, on average, 36 +/- 8 days ( mean +/- SD). Using a period of four weeks before and four weeks after the flightless period, we found that dive depth (ranging from 1 to 2 m, on average) and daily diving time did not vary during the course of the study. Daily metabolic rate increased by 9%, and resting metabolic rate by 12% from the pre-molt period to the flightless period and remained high during the post-molt period. This study indicates that the energetic costs of replacing flight remiges in female eiders are substantial, although this is not associated with any change in foraging effort, which suggests that female Common Eiders lose mass during wing molt. Finally, estimates of energy savings associated with the total absence of. flights during wing molt represent 6% of daily metabolic rate or 14% of resting metabolic rate. This. finding contrasts with the classical view that little or no benefit is associated with a flightless condition. We suggest that such energy savings may have favored the evolution of temporary flightlessness in diving birds.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2936-2945
Number of pages10
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2007


  • wing molt
  • time spent diving
  • sea ducks
  • flightlessness
  • somateria mollissima
  • energetic cost
  • daily heart rate
  • common eider
  • resting heart rate
  • time spent flying


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