News Nation Logo


Birds can sleep while flying without falling from the sky

Niels Rattenborg From The Max Planck Institute In Germany Along With An International Team Of Colleagues After Measuring The Brain Activity Of Frigatebirds Discovered That They Sleep In Flight With Either One Cerebral Hemisphere At A Time Or Both Hemispheres Simultaneously.

News Nation Bureau | Edited By : Bindiya Bhatt | Updated on: 06 Aug 2016, 10:34:23 AM
A flying bird (Source: Getty)


Birds can sleep while flying without falling from the sky and without colliding with objects or obstacles, researchers have found for the first time. Niels Rattenborg from the Max Planck Institute in Germany along with an international team of colleagues after measuring the brain activity of frigatebirds discovered that they sleep in flight with either one cerebral hemisphere at a time or both hemispheres simultaneously.

The birds engaged in all types of sleep in flight but still slept less than an hour a day, a mere fraction of the time spent sleeping on land. The researchers said that some swifts, songbirds, sandpipers, and seabirds fly non-stop for several days, weeks, or months as they traverse the globe. It is commonly assumed that these birds must fulfil their daily need for sleep on the wing, given the adverse effect sleep loss has on performance, they said.

Researchers analysed how birds may sleep in flight without colliding with obstacles or falling from the sky. One way they do this may 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, towards 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.

It is also possible that birds evolved a way to cheat on sleep. Researchers’ 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.

To actually determine whether and how birds sleep in flight, researchers needed to record the changes in brain activity and behaviour that distinguish wakefulness from the two types of sleep found in birds: slow wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Rattenborg teamed up with Alexei Vyssotski from University of Zurich in Switzerland who developed a small device to measure electroencephalographic changes in brain activity and head movements in flying birds.

Researchers found that despite being able to engage in all types of sleep on the wing, on average frigatebirds slept only 42 minutes per day. In contrast, when back on land they slept for over twelve hours per day. In addition, episodes of sleep were longer and deeper on land.

“Why they sleep so little in flight, even at night when they rarely forage, remains unclear,” said Rattenborg. The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications. 

(With inputs from PTI)

For all the Latest Science News, Download News Nation Android and iOS Mobile Apps.

First Published : 06 Aug 2016, 10:21:00 AM

Related Tags:

Birds Sleep