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Small, fat and the fastest long distance flyer on the planet

By Colin Ricketts - 07 Jun 2011 14:51:0 GMT
Small, fat and the fastest long distance flyer on the planet

It's small and with its rather round body shape doesn't exactly look athletic, but the great snipe can fly further, faster, without rest than any other creature on the planet.

Starting in Sweden, these incredible travellers put in a 60-mile-an-hour two day shift to arrive 4,200 miles away south of the Sahara in Africa.

Raymond Klaassen, a biologist at Sweden's Lund University published the research in the online journal Biology Letters after tagging 10 great snipes with trackers in western Sweden in May 2009. A year later, three of the birds were recaptured back home in Scandinavia and the story of their incredible journey was revealed.

Snipes are so famous for being on the portly side that 19th Century hunters reported that birds were so far that they blew open when they hit the ground. But, while we think of human athletes as being svelte and slim, the snipe uses these fat reserves as fuel for their flight.

"They almost double their body weight before the flight," Klaassen said. "And all this fat will be burned during the flight, and they will arrive lean and exhausted in Africa."

Most birds which migrate long distances do so relatively slowly. For example, the Arctic tern treks a mind-boggling 50,000 miles a year, but takes it at a very steady pace, taking several months with plenty of fishing trips along the way.

The fastest bird in the world, the peregrine falcon, gets up to 200-miles-an-hour, but these are just short sprints usually while diving for prey.

A similarly unprepossessing wader is the snipe's closest rival, the godwit, which has been recorded travelling 7,000 miles in nine days at an average speed of around 35-miles-an-hour.

"[One] difference between the godwits and the snipes is that the godwits travel over the ocean, and thus have no possibilities to stop," Klaassen said. "Hence, their amazing flights are not their choice."

Snipes, however, could easily stop off in any number of European resorts on their way to Africa; and in fact do take rest breaks on their return journey to Sweden. Klaassen says that the latest research suggests the birds are able to 'sleep' while flying by resting half of their brain at a time.

While the snipe basks in record breaking glory for the moment, Klaassen believes the record may not last long, as new miniaturised tracking devices are yet to be used on many species.

Image: Snipe. Credit: © Thijs Schouten