3 August 2016
I only dropped off for a second…
Bryson Voirin, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.
By Alice Klein
The debate has finally been put to bed. Wearable brainwave recorders confirm that birds do indeed sleep while flying, but only for brief periods and usually with one half of their brain.
We know several bird species can travel vast distances non-stop, prompting speculation that they must nap mid-flight. Great frigatebirds, for example, can fly continuously for up to two months. On the other hand, the male sandpiper, for one, can largely forgo sleep during the breeding season, hinting that it may also be possible for birds to stay awake during prolonged trips.
To settle this question, Niels Rattenborg at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, and his colleagues fitted small brain activity monitors and movement trackers to 14 great frigatebirds.
During long flights, the birds slept for an average of 41 minutes per day, in short episodes of about 12 seconds each. By contrast, they slept for more than 12 hours per day on land. Frigatebirds in flight tend to use one hemisphere at a time to sleep, as do ducks and dolphins, but sometimes they used both.
“Some people thought that all their sleep would have to be unihemispheric otherwise they would drop from the sky,” says Rattenborg. “But that’s not the case – they can sleep with both hemispheres and they just continue soaring.”
Sleep typically took place as the birds were circling in rising air currents, when they did not need to flap their wings.
During this time, the brain hemisphere connected to the eye facing the direction of the turn was more likely to stay awake.