Large — Wandering and Royal —Albatrosses: Characteristics, Subspecies and Courtship

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wandering albatross
The largest albatrosses (royal albatrosses and wandering albatrosses) have a wingspan of up 3.65 meters (11.5 feet), the longest of any bird. Riding wind currents they can circumnavigate world without ever touching land, but to take off from the water they must "paddle and flap laboriously into the wind." Albatrosses are often monogamous for their entire 50 year lives but females don't produce there first egg until they are nine years of age. and when a mating pair meets the spread there wings and clack bills.

Considered to be the largest seabirds and among the largest of all birds capable of flight, Royal albatross and wandering albatrosses are predators at the top of the food chain. They engage in elaborate courtship displays and establish permanent pair bonds, Pairs devote a full year to the breeding cycle, in which a single chick is reared, then spend most of the next year on the high seas. fledglings catch gusts of wind, glide a few meters, then start again. These training sessions prepare them for flying over the open ocean. [Source: Canon advertisement]

Although humans formerly hunted albatrosses as food, adults currently have no predators. Their large size, sharp bill, and occasionally aggressive behavior make them undesirable opponents. However, some are inadvertently caught during large-scale fishing operations. Chicks and eggs, on the other hand, are susceptible to predation from skuas and sheathbills and introduced predators such as mice, pigs, cats, rats, and goats. Eggs that fall out of nests or are unattended are quickly preyed upon. Nests are frequently sheltered with plant material to make them less conspicuous. Small chicks that are still in the brooding stage are easy targets for large carnivorous seabirds.

Royal albatrosses and all subspecies of wandering albatrosses are highly vulnerable to becoming bycatch of commercial fisheries, and population declines are mostly attributed to this. Introduced predators such as feral cats, pigs, goats, and rats on various islands leads to high mortality rates of chicks and eggs. Conservation efforts have included the removal of introduced predators from islands and fishery relocation. /=\

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Encyclopedia of Life; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; MarineBio

Wandering Albatrosses

wandering albatross

Wandering albatrosses (Scientific name:Diomedea exulans) have the largest wings of any bird: three to 3.5 meters (10 to 11 feet) across. Because such enormous wings are difficult to flap rapidly they have difficulty taking off. Some launch themselves off cliffs. Others leap into head winds which provide them with lift. Crowded colonies often have a landing strip where the birds can land and takeoff, with birds cuing up like waiting planes at an airport. Taking off is particularly hard for young birds.

Wandering albatrosses are native to oceanic islands, the Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean and are found almost exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, although occasional sightings just north of the Equator have been reported. They are widely dispersed over the Southern Ocean and have been seen on coastal areas and islands of southern South America, southern Africa and southern Australia. In 2002, there were an estimated 8,500 pairs. [Source: Canon advertisement]

Wandering albatrosses breed on several remote oceanic and subantarctic islands, which are characterized by peat soils, tussock grass on hillocks, sedges, mosses, and shrubs. Wandering albatrosses nest in sheltered areas on plateaus, near ridges and on grassy plains or in valleys. Outside of the breeding season, wandering albatrosses are found only in the open ocean, where food is abundant. [Source: Lauren Scopel, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Wandering and royal albatrosses are long-lived. A wandering albatross nicknamed "Grandma" was recorded to live over 60 years in New Zealand. Due to the late onset of maturity, with the average age at first breeding about 10 years, such longevity is not unexpected. However, there is fairly high chick mortality, ranging from 30 to 75 percent. Their slow breeding cycle and late onset of maturity make wandering albatrosses highly susceptible to population declines when adults are caught as bycatch in fishing nets. /=\

Wandering Albatross Characteristics

Wandering albatrosses range in length from 1.1 to 1.37 meters (3.6 to 4.5 feet). Their wingspan ranges from 2.5 to 3.5 meters (8.2 to 11.5 feet), with their average wingspan being 3.1 meters (10.2 feet). They weigh six to 11 kilograms (13 to 24 pounds), with their average weight being 8.1 kilograms (18 pounds). Their average basal metabolic rate is 20.3649 watts. Sexual dimorphism (differences between males and females is minimal: Both sexes are roughly equal in size and look similar but males are larger sexes are colored and patterned differently. [Source: Lauren Scopel, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Wandering albatrosses are endothermic (use their metabolism to generate heat and regulate body temperature independent of the temperatures around them), homoiothermic (warm-blooded, having a constant body temperature, usually higher than the temperature of their surroundings) and have bilateral symmetry (both sides of the animal are the same). /=\

All subspecies of wandering albatrosses have extremely long wingspans, white underwing coverts, and pink bills. Adult body plumage ranges from pure white to dark brown, and the wings range from being entirely blackish to a combination of black with white coverts and scapulars. They are distinguished from the closely related royal albatross by their white eyelids, pink bill color, lack of black on the maxilla, and head and body shape. On average, males have longer bills, tarsi, tails, and wings than females. /=\

Juveniles of all subspecies are very much alike; they have chocolate-brown plumage with a white face and black wings. As individuals age, most become progressively whiter with each molt, starting with the back.

Wandering Albatross Subspecies

There is some disagreement over how many subspecies of wandering albatross there are, and whether they should be considered separate species. Most subspecies of wandering albatrosses are difficult to tell apart, especially as juveniles, but DNA analyses have shown that significant differences exist. [Source: Lauren Scopel, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

The main subspecies are: 1) Diomedea exulansexulans, which breeds on South Georgia, Prince Edward, Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen, and Macquarie islands; 2) Diomedea exulans dabbenena, which occurs on Gough and Inaccessible islands, ranging over the Atlantic Ocean to western coastal Africa; 3) Diomedea exulans antipodensis, which is found primarily on the Antipodes of New Zealand, and ranges at sea from Chile to eastern Australia; 4) Diomedea exulans. amsterdamensis, which is found only on Amsterdam Island and the surrounding seas. Other subspecies names that have become obsolete include A) Diomedea exulansgibsoni, now commonly considered part of D. e. antipodensis, and B) Diomedea exulansgibsoni chionoptera, considered part of D. e. exulans. /=\

1) D. e. exulans averages larger than other recognized subspecies, and is the only taxon that achieves fully white body plumage, and this only in males. Although females do not become pure white, they can still be distinguished from other subspecies by color alone. Adults also have mostly white coverts, with black only on the primaries and secondaries. 2) Adults of D. e. amsterdamensis have dark brown plumage with white faces and black crowns, and are distinguished from juveniles by their white bellies and throats. In addition to their black tails, they also have a black stripe along the cutting edge of the maxilla, a character otherwise found in D. epomophora but not other forms of Wandering albatrosses. Males and females are similar in plumage. /=\

3) Adults of D. e. antipodensis display Sexual Dimorphism (differences between males and females): in plumage, with older males appearing white with some brown splotching, while adult females have mostly brown underparts and a white face. Both sexes also have a brown breast band. 4) With age, D. e. dabbenena gradually attains white plumage, although it never becomes as white as male D. e. exulans. The wing coverts also appear mostly black, although there may be white patches. Females have more brown splotches than males, and have less white in their wing coverts. /=\

Wandering albatrosses exulans and Wandering albatrosses antipodensis are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list and Birdlife International as being vulnerable; Wandering albatrosses dabbenena is listed as Endangered. Wandering albatrosses amsterdamensis is listed as critically Endangered due to introduced predators, risk of becoming bycatch, small population size, threat of chick mortality by disease, and loss of habitat to cattle farming

Wandering Albatross Behavior and Feeding

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Wandering albatrosses are diurnal (active mainly during the daytime), motile (move around as opposed to being stationary), nomadic (move from place to place, generally within a well-defined range), territorial (defend an area within the home range), social (associates with others of its species; forms social groups) and colonial (living together in groups or in close proximity to each other). [Source: Lauren Scopel, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=] /=\

Wandering albatrosses defend small nesting territories. The average size of these territories is one square meters. Otherwise the range within which they travel is many thousands of square kilometers. While foraging at sea, wandering albatrosses travel in small groups. Large feeding frenzies may occur around fishing boats. Individuals may travel thousands of kilometers away from their breeding grounds, even occasionally crossing the equator. /=\

Wandering albatrosses sense using vision, touch, sound and chemicals usually detected with smell. They communicate with vision, touch and sound. During the breeding season, they are gregarious and displays are common Displays and vocalizations are common when defending territory or mating. They include croaks, bill-clapping, bill-touching, skypointing, trumpeting, head-shaking, the "ecstatic" gesture, and "the gawky-look". Individuals may also vocalize when fighting over food.

Wandering albatrosses primarily eat fish, such as toothfish, squids, other cephalopods, and occasional crustaceans. The primary method of feeding is by surface-seizing. They have the ability to plunge and dive up to one meter. They will sometimes follow fishing boats and feed on catches with other seabirds, which they usually outcompete because of their size.

Wandering Albatross Mating and Reproduction

Wandering albatrosses engage in seasonal breeding. Breeding occurs biennially, possibly annually if the previous season's attempt fails. The breeding season is from December through March. Pairs with chicks from the previous season co-exist in colonies with mating and incubating pairs. Pairs unsuccessful in one year may try to mate again in the same year or the next one, but their chances of successfully rearing young are low.[Source: Lauren Scopel, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Wandering albatrosses are monogamous (have one mate at a time). They forming pair bonds for life. Females may bond temporarily with other males if their partner and nest are not readily visible. After foraging at sea, males arrive first at the same breeding site every year within days of each other. They locate and reuse old nests or sometimes create new ones. Females arrive later, over the course of a few weeks.

Copulation occurs in the austral summer, usually around December (February for D. e. amsterdamensis). Rape and extra-pair copulations are frequent, despite their monogamous mating strategy. Some individuals may reach sexual maturity by age six. Immature, non-breeding individuals will return to the breeding site. Group displays are common among non-breeding adults, but most breeding adults do not participate. /=\

Wandering Albatross Nesting and Young

courting wandering albatross male and female

For wandering albatrosses the average number of eggs per season is one. The time to hatching ranges from 74 to 85 days, with the fledging age ranging from seven to 10 months and the age in which they become independent ranging from seven to 10 months. Females and males reach sexual maturity at six to 22 years, with the average being 10 years. During the pre-fertilization stage provisioning and protecting is done by females. During the pre-birth stage provisioning is done by females and protecting is done by males and females. During the pre-weaning stage provisioning and protecting are done by females and males. During Pre-independence provisioning is by females and males. /=\

Pairs nest on slopes or valleys, usually in the cover of grasses or shrubs. Nests are depressions lined with grass, twigs, and soil. Males choose the nesting territory, and stay at the nest site more than females before incubation. Both parents incubate eggs and alternate during incubation. Although females take the first shift, males are eager to take over incubation and may forcefully push females off the egg.

Although there is generally equal parental investment, males tend to invest more as the chick nears fledging. Occasionally, a single parent may successfully rear its chick. Untended eggs are in danger of predation by skuas and sheathbills, After the chick hatches, they are brooded for about four to six weeks until they can be left alone at the nest. Males and females alternate foraging at sea. Following the brooding period, both parents leave the chick by itself while they forage. The chicks are entirely dependent on their parents for food for nine to 10 months, and may wait weeks for them to return. Chicks are entirely independent once they fledge. /=\

Royal Albatrosses

Royal albatrosses (Scientific name: Diomedea epomophora) live in temperate, tropical and polar saltwater-marine environments. They are found in coastal areas and in the open ocean far from land. Nearly 80 percent of a royal albatross' life is spent directly exposed to the cold, treacherous, open oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. Remote tropical islands are sought out for nesting. They typically nest on slopes with tussock grass providing some shelter, though exposed sites are also common as they ease the often difficult tasks of take-off and landing. [Source: Jason LaGosh, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Northern Royal albatross with Red-billed Gull
Royal albatrosses require a year to raise their young, an effort that leaves them exhausted. They need two years to regain their strength to breed again Young southern royal albatrosses socialize in groups like human children and teenagers. Describing adolescents in a colony on the Falklands, Safina wrote in the National Geographic, “Like Kabuki dancers, they show off exaggerated movements, turning preening into choreography, fanning tails, cooing mutually extending their necks and laying bills together. They accentuate flawless wings, healthy plumage, and attentive grooming the way young teenagers accentuate skin and vigor, displaying precisely those body parts that indicate fertility.”

Royal albatross are remarkably long-lived when considering that the vast majority of their lives are spent over the perilous southern oceans. The adult mortality rate is three percent per year. In the wild, a royal albatross was known to have lived to over 58 years. It is possible that some birds may reach an age of 80 years. Due in part to their large size and solitary lifestyle, both in the air and on secluded islands, royal adult albatross have no known predators. Introduced predators such as cats and rats may be a threat to eggs and young.

Humans have been a threat in the past. Populations declined rapidly due to commercial fishing practices but recent, stricter penalties for killing royal albatross have helped populations remain stable and healthy. In New Zealand waters trawlers are required to replace outdated equipment and implement new, safer methods. Today, populations are estimated to be 10,000 to 20,000 pairs. Royal albatross are listed as 'Vulnerable' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They have no special status according to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Feeding and Northern and Southern Royal Albatross

There are two subspecies of royal albatrosses. 1) Northern royal albatrosses (D. e. sanfordi) commonly nest on Campbell Island and the Auckland Islands. Southern royal albatrosses (D.e. epomophora) nest almost exclusively on the Chatham Islands, located hundreds of miles east of New Zealand. After breeding, the species may circumnavigate the Southern Ocean, though it is most commonly sighted in New Zealand and South American waters. It has never been recorded north of the Equator. /=\

Differences in the appearances of the two subspecies are minimal. Both are predominantly white, with faint pinkish bills. Northern royal albatrosses are considerably smaller and have entirely black upper wings. Southern royal albatrosses have predominantly white wings with black markings near the wing tips. Northern royal albatross can fly 1,800 kilometers in 24 hours.

The range of Royal albatrosses extends throughout the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. They mainly eat squid such as the greater hooked squid and giant warty squid as well as fish such as blue grenadier and some crustaceans. Due to their lack of maneuverability, an albatross rarely picks up prey in flight. Instead, they sit on the water and use a method known as surface-seizing. Occasionally, they make shallow plunges. Most of their hunting, particularly for squid, is done at night.

Royal Albatross Characteristics, Flying and Behavior

Royal albatrosses have very long, slender, knife-like wings. They have an average weight of nine kilograms (20 pounds) and range in length from 1.1 to 1.2 meters (3.5 to 4 feet). Their wingspan ranges from three to 3.5 meters (10 to 11.5 feet), with their average wingspan being 3.25 meters (10.7 feet). Males are slightly larger than females.[Source: Jason LaGosh, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Northern Royal Albatross

Royal albatrosses are good gliders and are diurnal (active during the daytime), nocturnal (active at night), motile (move around as opposed to being stationary), nomadic (move from place to place, generally within a well-defined range) and solitary. It it estimated that they travel more than 163,000 kilometers (100,000 miles) each year, reaching speeds over 110 kilometers per hour (70 miles per hour). Royal albatross are generally solitary at sea. Sometimes they form large congregations when abundant food is present, particularly around fishing boats. Hundreds of older juveniles and birds without mates may gather on land in resting areas.

Because they are unable to sustain flapping flight, royal albatross cannot fly in calm weather. According to Animal Diversity Web: When winds drop, royal albatross may be forced to float in the oceans. Instead of flapping their wings, royal albatross glide, using the updrafts of air which are deflected upwards by the waves of the ocean. As majestic as royal albatross are in the sky, their methods for take-off and landing are anything but graceful. Royal albatross must take a long running start with their wings spread to take off. An element of danger exists in landing, particularly on solid ground. Without continued flapping, braking can be difficult. Often times, this results in crash landings, where injuries are not uncommon. /=\

Royal albatrosses communicate with vision, touch and sound and sense using vision, touch, sound and chemicals usually detected with smell. Elaborate displays are done by males and females to form pair-bonds. Actions like 'Bill-circling', 'Sky-pointing', 'Flank-touching' with the bill and the spreading of the wings are involved in courtship. These displays are typically accompanied by a variety of calls. This form of communal dancing usually takes place on land but on occasion it can occur at sea. Royal albatross are usually silent at sea but can become rather vocal when competing for food, especially around fish boats. Croaking, shrieking, and gargling sounds are the most common sounds made during competition for food. As a threat to intruders, a highly characteristic rattling sound can be produced by clappering the bill quickly and repeatedly. /=\

Royal Albatross Mating, Reproduction and Offspring

Royal albatrosses engage in seasonal breeding and breed every other year. The breeding season begins in October Without fail, only one egg is laid. Eggs weigh between 205 to 487 grams, about five to 11 percent of the body weight of the mother. The average time to hatching is 79 days. Chicks have white down and their coloration is similar to that of adults. The average fledging age is 240 days. At this time chicks simply flies off on their own. Females and males reach sexual maturity at 9 to 11 years. [Source: Jason LaGosh, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Royal albatross are monogamous (have one mate at a time) and pair for life. 'Divorce' is unusual and under normal conditions only occurs after several failed breeding attempts, typically only death splits a pair. Young are altricial. This means that young are born relatively underdeveloped and are unable to feed or care for themselves or move independently for a period of time after birth. Pre-birth protection and pre-weaning provisioning and protecting are done by females and males.

According to Animal Diversity Web: Royal albatross have extensive and varied courtship displays that include actions like 'Bill-circling', 'Sky-pointing', 'Flank-touching' with the bill, and full spreading of the wings. In many cases, these rituals are done and a pair is formed in the season prior to breeding. An elaborate courtship is unnecessary for birds that have bred together in the previous year. Previously mated pairs usually use the same nest-site as the year before. Typically, the male arrives a few days before the female. A few greeting ceremonies are performed upon the arrival of the female, and shortly thereafter, they breed. Breeding is biennial (occurs every two years), due in part to the long incubation period. As a result, there is no replacement egg laying, forcing a pair to wait until the following season to re-nest if their egg is lost. /=\

After arriving to the nest-site first, the male defends the territory against other males and rebuilds or starts building a new nest while he waits for his partner. When the female arrives a few days later, the birds briefly display then copulate. Immediately afterwards, both return to sea where they feed and begin to build up a reserve of food. Both birds return to the nest shortly before the egg is laid. The female lays the egg then immediately retreats to the sea.

The male is left to incubate the egg until the female returns, sometimes leaving the male without food or water for two to three weeks. When the female returns to the nest, the male leaves to find food and regain his strength. This pattern continues until the egg hatches and the chick no longer needs to be brooded, this usually takes six weeks. At this point, both parents leave to find food but return daily to feed their chick a meal of partly digested fish, squid, and stomach oil that adults produce during the ordinary digestion of their food. The oil is rich in fats and helps provide the nutrients necessary for the chick to grow despite long spans without food. The growing chick wanders around the nest-site between visits, but must return to the nest to be fed. After a few brief failures, the chick simply flies away to start life on its own./=\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated May 2023

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