We spend millions on weather satellites - but scientists find vultures are ideal forecasters

Monitoring the flight patterns of griffon vultures in the Grand Causses Regional Natural Park in Averyon could help meteorologists improve their weather forecasting
Monitoring the flight patterns of griffon vultures in the Grand Causses Regional Natural Park in Averyon could help meteorologists improve their weather forecasting

Griffon vultures in the Grand Causses Regional Natural Park in Aveyron are being used to measure weather patterns - which could help forecasters make more accurate predictions in the future.

Researchers use tiny GPS units strapped to the giant birds’ backs to track their flight patterns, which are strongly influenced by local meteorological conditions. 

The vultures are reluctant to fly in rainy or stormy weather and their flight altitude often depends on the wind. They use thermals to climb to great heights and taking measurements from the way they use a particular column of hot air could give meteorologists vital information which could help predict storms.

Improvements in miniature GPS transmitters’ accuracy means a whole new way of collecting data has opened to scientists.

As well as location, the new equipment can also measure acceleration, compass direction, temperature and pressure.

Montpellier University environmental scientist, Olivier Duriez says the birds give information which is extremely difficult to measure with other methods: “Wing-flapping consumes a lot of energy and as these birds have to travel vast distances to find the carrion they feed on, they have evolved ways of moving with the least effort. They can fly between 100 and 300km a day.

“When the sun is shining, the air near the ground warms and rises and the birds take full advantage of this free lift. Because they use this technique so efficiently, we can estimate how fast the air in a thermal column rises based on the GPS data.

“The columns move with the wind, so wind velocity and direction can simultaneously be measured by the way the birds move.”

The project is international with scientists from Amsterdam and Ohio State universities studying data from the 55 French vultures carrying transmitters.

Dr Duriez said: “Human weather measurements were accurate for wind velocity and strength but the birds climbed much faster than we thought they would, showing us they can teach us about the formation and evolution of thermals.”

The results show birds could help forecasters all over the world, particularly in remote areas such as the Sahara and Sahel.

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