Determination of the absolute visual threshold of a nocturnal seabird, the Common Diving Petrel Pelecanoides urinatrix



    1. Percy FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa
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    • *Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ.


Many of the smaller burrowing petrels are active at their colonies during the night. How they find their nesting burrows in the open terrain of an oceanic island or in the even more visually-taxing gloom under a forest canopy (Grubb 1974 and references therein) is a feat which has long intrigued naturalists (Lockley 1942). There is experimental evidence that vision is important in burrow location by the Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus (Brooke 1978, James 1986), while olfactory homing by Leach's Petrel Oceanodroma leucorhoa has also been suggested by Grubb (1974).

Additionally it seems likely that a number of petrel species catch a significant fraction of their food at night (Imber 1973, Prince & Francis 1984). Many of the squid presumed to be caught then are not bioluminescent (Imber 1973, Clarke et al. 1981), so their detection presumably demands good night vision. In the context of these observations, the dearth of information on the visual abilities of petrels is remarkable.

The present study investigated the absolute visual threshold of the Common Diving Petrel Pelecanoides urinatrix. Probably because the species is small (c. 130 g) and so vulnerable to predators such as Sub-antarctic Skuas Catharacta antarctica, it is strictly nocturnal at breeding colonies (Thoresen 1969, Payne & Prince 1979). It nests in burrows that are often located under tussock grass Poa spp. Whether the birds catch their crustacean prey (Payne & Prince 1979) by day or night is not known.