Albatrosses listen to the sea to navigate the sky

Albatrosses are burly birds–sometimes weighing as much as 28 pounds—yet somehow manage to fly more than 6,000 miles across the open ocean without running out of energy. It's all about catching the right gusts of wind to soar. How do they identify the best air currents though? By listening carefully. New research suggests that the birds can hear the very low-frequency sounds from the ocean's waves that are affected by the wind conditions.

From Science:

Researchers tracking the paths of these long-distance fliers report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the very low frequency noise made by clashing waves influences the birds' headings. The species joins a small but growing list of animals—including elephants, prairie dogs, and homing pigeons—that make use of such "infrasounds."[…]

Big waves produce a very low frequency sound, below 20 hertz and beyond the limits of human hearing, that can travel thousands of kilometers, particularly when they collide with long distance swells, such as when storms develop. Samantha Patrick, an ecologist at the University of Liverpool was curious about whether the birds could key into these infrasounds—the "voice of the sea," she calls it—to find the perfect wind.[…]

During their long-distance flights, the birds tended to change course whenever they encountered a loud infrasound, the team reports. The infrasounds often indicate wave turbulence, even storms—though it's not yet clear how the birds make use of this information. The infrasound clearly impacted the birds' behavior, although the scientists couldn't identify a clear pattern of whether they avoided or aimed for these low frequencies.