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Sat, Feb

First evidence of sleep in flight

Typography

For the first time, researchers have discovered that birds can sleep in flight. Together with an international team of colleagues, Niels Rattenborg from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen measured the brain activity of frigatebirds and found that they sleep in flight with either one cerebral hemisphere at a time or both hemispheres simultaneously. Despite being able to engage in all types of sleep in flight, the birds slept less than an hour a day, a mere fraction of the time spent sleeping on land. How frigatebirds are able to perform adaptively on such little sleep remains a mystery.

For the first time, researchers have discovered that birds can sleep in flight. Together with an international team of colleagues, Niels Rattenborg from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen measured the brain activity of frigatebirds and found that they sleep in flight with either one cerebral hemisphere at a time or both hemispheres simultaneously. Despite being able to engage in all types of sleep in flight, the birds slept less than an hour a day, a mere fraction of the time spent sleeping on land. How frigatebirds are able to perform adaptively on such little sleep remains a mystery.

It is known that some swifts, songbirds, sandpipers, and seabirds fly non-stop for several days, weeks, or months as they traverse the globe. Given the adverse effect sleep loss has on performance, it is commonly assumed that these birds must fulfill their daily need for sleep on the wing.

Half-awake or fully awake in flight?

How might a bird sleep in flight without colliding with obstacles or falling from the sky? One solution would be to only switch off half of the brain at a time, as Rattenborg showed in mallard ducks sleeping in a dangerous situation on land. When sleeping at the edge of a group, mallards keep one cerebral hemisphere awake and the corresponding eye open and directed away from the other birds, toward a potential threat. Based on these findings and the fact that dolphins can swim while sleeping unihemispherically, it is commonly assumed that birds also rely on this sort of autopilot to navigate and maintain aerodynamic control during flight.

However, it is also possible that birds evolved a way to cheat on sleep. The sleep researcher’s and colleagues’ recent discovery that male pectoral sandpipers competing for females can perform adaptively for several weeks despite sleeping very little raised the possibility that birds simply forgo sleep altogether in flight. Consequently, evidence of continuous flight is not by default evidence of sleep in flight: Without directly measuring a bird’s brain state, previous claims that birds sleep in flight remain mere speculation.

Flight data recorder catches birds napping on the wing

To actually determine whether and how birds sleep in flight, the researchers needed to record the changes in brain activity and behavior that distinguish wakefulness from the two types of sleep found in birds: slow wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Niels Rattenborg teamed up with Alexei Vyssotski (University of Zurich and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH) who developed a small device to measure electroencephalographic changes in brain activity and head movements in flying birds.

Continue reading at Max Planck Society.

Image credit: © B. Voirin