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Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

Wandering albatross pairs mate for life (5), these long-lived birds do not reach sexual maturity until 9 – 11 years of age (4). Nests are constructed from a mound of grasses and moss and a single egg is laid (2). Both parents take it in turns to incubate the egg (that hatches after two months) and then to feed the growing chick, which remains on the nest for around nine months (5). Albatrosses use their enormous wingspan to glide effortlessly on updrafts of wind, they spend the majority of their life in flight and can travel enormous distances (2); one bird was recorded to have travelled 6000 km in 12 days (5). Albatrosses feed at the surface of the water, often roosting on the surface at night (5); they take fish and cephalopods (squid), and will often follow ships feeding on the fish waste they discharge (4).
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Description

The impressive wandering albatross has the largest recorded wingspan of any bird, reaching up to a massive 3.5 metres across (2). Juveniles have chocolate-brown feathers and a white facemask but over time the white colouration expands, leaving only black at the edges of the wings and tail tip (4); they take up to nine years to reach adult plumage (5). The hooked bill is pink and the flesh-coloured legs end in webbed feet, reflecting the largely oceanic life-style of this bird (4). Unusually amongst birds, albatrosses have tubular nostrils on either side of their upper bill instead of the more common fused nostrils of other bird species (2).
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Distribution

Range Description

Diomedea exulans breeds on South Georgia (Georgias del Sur) (c. 25% of the global breeding population), Prince Edward Islands (South Africa) (c. 40% of the global population), Crozet Islands and Kerguelen Islands (French Southern Territories) (approximately 10% of the global population) and Macquarie Island (Australia) (approximately four pairs breeding per year), with a total global population of c. 6,100 pairs breeding in any given year (ACAP 2009). At South Georgia, the population declined by 1.8% per annum between 1984 and 2004 (Poncet et al. 2006). The population on Crozet declined by 54% between 1970 - 1986. From the mid 1980s to late 1990s, the Crozet, Kerguelen and Prince Edward Islands populations appeared to be stable or increasing (Weimerskirch et al. 1997, Weimerskirch and Jouventin 1998, Crawford et al. 2003, Ryan et al. 2003), but declines have recently been detected (P. Ryan in litt 2008, H. Weimerskirch in litt. 2008). Overall declines are estimated to exceed 30% over 70 years. Recovery is believed to be impeded by a decline in recruitment rate (Weimerskirch et al. 2006). Non-breeding and juvenile birds remain north of 50S between subantarctic and subtropical waters with a significant proportion crossing the Indian Ocean to wintering grounds around the southern and eastern coast of Australia (ACAP 2009). A significant proportion of the Crozet and Kerguelen populations disperse into the Pacific and the western coast of South America (H. Weimerskirch in litt. 2008).

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Wandering albatrosses are found almost exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, although occasional sightings just north of the Equator have been reported.

There is some disagreement over how many subspecies of wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) there are, and whether they should be considered separate species. Most subspecies of Diomedea exulans are difficult to tell apart, especially as juveniles, but DNA analyses have shown that significant differences exist.

Diomedea exulans exulans breeds on South Georgia, Prince Edward, Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen, and Macquarie islands. Diomedea exulans dabbenena occurs on Gough and Inaccessible islands, ranging over the Atlantic Ocean to western coastal Africa. Diomedea exulans antipodensis is found primarily on the Antipodes of New Zealand, and ranges at sea from Chile to eastern Australia. Diomedea exulans amsterdamensis is found only on Amsterdam Island and the surrounding seas. Other subspecies names that have become obsolete include Diomedea exulans gibsoni, now commonly considered part of D. e. antipodensis, and Diomedea exulans chionoptera, considered part of D. e. exulans.

Biogeographic Regions: oceanic islands (Native ); indian ocean (Native ); atlantic ocean (Native ); pacific ocean (Native )

  • Birdlife International, 2006. "Species factsheets" (On-line). Accessed November 07, 2006 at http://www.birdlife.org.
  • Shirihai, H. 2002. The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
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Range

Wandering albatrosses spend the majority of their time in flight, soaring over the southern oceans (5). They breed on a number of islands just north of the Antarctic Circle, notably: South Georgia Island (belonging to the UK), Prince Edward and Marion Islands (South Africa), Crozet and Kerguelen Islands (French Southern Territories) and Macquarie Island (Australia) (4).
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Physical Description

Morphology

All subspecies of wandering albatrosses have extremely long wingspans (averaging just over 3 meters), 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.

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.

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 D. exulans. Males and females are similar in plumage.

Adults of D. e. antipodensis display sexual dimorphism 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.

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.

Range length: 1.1 to 1.35 m.

Range wingspan: 2.5 to 3.5 m.

Average wingspan: 3.1 m.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; male larger; sexes colored or patterned differently

Average mass: 8130 g.

Average basal metabolic rate: 20.3649 W.

  • Tickell, W. 1968. Biology of Great Albatrosses. Pp. 1-53 in Antarctic Bird Studies. Baltimore: Horn-Schafer.
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Diagnostic Description

Description

Length: 120-130 cm; wingspan: 272-328 cm. Colour: Adult: This plumage attained in a minimum of five years. Mostly white with black primaries and black trailing edge to secondaries. Subadult: blacker above particularly on the upper wing which is mostly black. Immature: Dark brown with white on face and underwing, but retains the dark trailing edge to the wing. The bird whitens with age. Bill large and pale pink with a yellow tip. Feet pink to mauve. Habitat: Open ocean. <388><391><393>
  • Brown, L.H., E.K. Urban & K. Newman (1982). The Birds of Africa, Volume I. Academic Press, London.
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Description

Length: 120-130 cm; wingspan: 272-328 cm. Colour: Adult: This plumage attained in a minimum of five years. Mostly white with black primaries and black trailing edge to secondaries. Subadult: blacker above particularly on the upper wing which is mostly black. Immature: Dark brown with white on face and underwing, but retains the dark trailing edge to the wing. The bird whitens with age. Bill large and pale pink with a yellow tip. Feet pink to mauve. Habitat: Open ocean. <388><391><393>
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
Behaviour Diomedea exulans is a biennial breeding species, although about 30% of successful and 35% of failed breeders (on average) defer breeding beyond the expected year. Adults return to colonies in November, and eggs are laid over a period of 5 weeks during December and January. Most eggs hatch in March, and chicks fledge in December. Birds usually return to colonies when 5-7 years old, though can return when as young as 3 years old. Birds can start breeding as young as 7 or 8 years old (ACAP 2009). Wandering Albatross typically forages in oceanic waters, however considerable time is spent over shelf areas during certain stages of the breeding season (BirdLife International 2004). Satellite tracking has revealed that juvenile birds tend to forage further north than adults (Weimerskirch et al. 2006, British Antarctic Survey unpublished data), bringing them into greater overlap with longline tuna fleets which may be driving falls in recruitment rates (Weimerskirch et al. 1997). Females may also be at greater risk of being caught in tuna fisheries since they tend to forage further north than males (Nel et al. 2002, Weimerskirch et al. 2003, Pinaud and Weimerskirch 2007) and show lower survival (Xavier et al. 2004). It is mostly a diurnal breeder, taking most prey by surface-seizing (ACAP 2009). Habitat Breeding Wandering Albatross nests in open or patchy vegetation near exposed ridges or hillocks (Carboneras 1992b). Diet Adults feed at sea mainly on cephalopods and fish, often following ships and feeding on offal and galley refuse (Carboneras 1992b, Cherel and Klages 1998). Patagonian toothfish Dissostichus eleginoides is the primary fish species in the diet, potentially obtained as discarded offal (ACAP 2009). Foraging range This wide ranging species has a circumpolar distribution, and both breeding and non-breeding birds have very large foraging ranges. Satellite tracking data indicate that breeding birds forage at very long distances from colonies (up to 4,000 km) and that foraging strategies change throughout the breeding season (ACAP 2009). A recent fledgling covered 6,590km in 28 days after leaving the colony on Marion Island (Clokie 2007).


Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Marine
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Depth range based on 2355 specimens in 1 taxon.
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 2327 samples.

Environmental ranges
  Depth range (m): 0 - 0
  Temperature range (°C): -1.525 - 21.283
  Nitrate (umol/L): 0.459 - 30.651
  Salinity (PPS): 33.216 - 35.585
  Oxygen (ml/l): 5.098 - 8.188
  Phosphate (umol/l): 0.241 - 2.109
  Silicate (umol/l): 1.479 - 70.561

Graphical representation

Temperature range (°C): -1.525 - 21.283

Nitrate (umol/L): 0.459 - 30.651

Salinity (PPS): 33.216 - 35.585

Oxygen (ml/l): 5.098 - 8.188

Phosphate (umol/l): 0.241 - 2.109

Silicate (umol/l): 1.479 - 70.561
 
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Wandering albatrosses breed on several subantarctic islands, which are characterized by peat soils, tussock grass, sedges, mosses, and shrubs. Wandering albatrosses nest in sheltered areas on plateaus, ridges, plains, or valleys.

Outside of the breeding season, wandering albatrosses are found only in the open ocean, where food is abundant.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; polar ; terrestrial ; saltwater or marine

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland

Aquatic Biomes: pelagic ; coastal

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Depth range based on 2355 specimens in 1 taxon.
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 2327 samples.

Environmental ranges
  Depth range (m): 0 - 0
  Temperature range (°C): -1.525 - 21.283
  Nitrate (umol/L): 0.459 - 30.651
  Salinity (PPS): 33.216 - 35.585
  Oxygen (ml/l): 5.098 - 8.188
  Phosphate (umol/l): 0.241 - 2.109
  Silicate (umol/l): 1.479 - 70.561

Graphical representation

Temperature range (°C): -1.525 - 21.283

Nitrate (umol/L): 0.459 - 30.651

Salinity (PPS): 33.216 - 35.585

Oxygen (ml/l): 5.098 - 8.188

Phosphate (umol/l): 0.241 - 2.109

Silicate (umol/l): 1.479 - 70.561
 
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Found over the open ocean, albatrosses travel vast distances (5). Breeding takes place on exposed ridges and hillocks, amongst open and patchy vegetation (4).
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Trophic Strategy

Wandering albatrosses primarily eat fish, such as toothfish (Dissostichus), squids, other cephalopods, and occasional crustaceans. The primary method of foraging is by surface-seizing, but they have the ability to plunge and dive up to 1 meter. They will sometimes follow fishing boats and feed on catches with other Procellariiformes, which they usually outcompete because of their size.

Animal Foods: fish; mollusks; aquatic crustaceans

Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore , Molluscivore )

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Associations

Wandering albatrosses are predators, feeding on fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans. They are known for their ability to compete with other seabirds for food, particularly near fishing boats. Although adult birds, their eggs, and their chicks were formerly a source of food to humans, such practices have been stopped.

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Although humans formerly hunted wandering 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 formerly were harvested by humans as well. 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. Introduced predators, including mice, pigs, cats, rats, and goats are also known to eat eggs and chicks.

Known Predators:

  • skuas (Stercorariidae)
  • sheathbills (Chionis)
  • domestic cats (Felis silvestris)
  • introduced pigs (Sus scrofa)
  • introduced goats (Capra hircus)
  • introduced rats (Rattus rattus and Rattus norvegicus)
  • introduced mice (Mus musculus)

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Breeding Category

Visitor
  • Woehler E.J. (compiler) 2006. Species list prepared for SCAR/IUCN/BirdLife International Workshop on Antarctic Regional Seabird Populations, March 2005, Cambridge, UK.
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Breeding Category

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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.

Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

Wandering albatrosses are long-lived. An individual 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%. 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.

Range lifespan

Status: wild:
60 (high) years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
415 months.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 40 years (wild) Observations: These animals have been estimated to live up to 40 years in the wild (http://www.demogr.mpg.de/longevityrecords), though detailed studies are lacking.
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Reproduction

Wandering albatrosses have a biennial breeding cycle, and 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.

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. Wandering albatrosses have a monogamous mating strategy, forming pair bonds for life. Females may bond temporarily with other males if their partner and nest are not readily visible.

Mating System: monogamous

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. Pairs nest on slopes or valleys, usually in the cover of grasses or shrubs. Nests are depressions lined with grass, twigs, and soil. A single egg is laid and, if incubation or rearing fails, pairs usually wait until the following year to try again. Both parents incubate eggs, which takes about 78 days on average. Although females take the first shift, males are eager to take over incubation and may forcefully push females off the egg. Untended eggs are in danger of predation by skuas (Stercorarius) and sheathbills (Chionis).

After the chick hatches, they are brooded for about 4 to 6 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 9 to 10 months, and may wait weeks for them to return. Chicks are entirely independent once they fledge.

Some individuals may reach sexual maturity by age 6. 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.

Breeding interval: Breeding occurs biennially, possibly annually if the previous season's attempt fails.

Breeding season: Breeding occurs from December through March.

Average eggs per season: 1.

Range time to hatching: 74 to 85 days.

Range fledging age: 7 to 10 months.

Range time to independence: 7 to 10 months.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 6 to 22 years.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 10 years.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 6 to 22 years.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 10 years.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous

Males choose the nesting territory, and stay at the nest site more than females before incubation. Parents alternate during incubation, and later during brooding and feeding once the chick is old enough to be left alone at the nest.  Although there is generally equal parental investment, males will tend to invest more as the chick nears fledging. Occasionally, a single parent may successfully rear its chick.

Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female)

  • Shirihai, H. 2002. The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Tickell, W. 1968. Biology of Great Albatrosses. Pp. 1-53 in Antarctic Bird Studies. Baltimore: Horn-Schafer.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage: Diomedea exulans

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 7
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
VU
Vulnerable

Red List Criteria
A4bd

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Taylor, J. & Butchart, S.

Contributor/s
Cooper, J., Croxall, J., Gales, R., Phillips, R. & Weimerskirsch, H.

Justification
Overall past and predicted future declines amount to a rapid population reduction over a period of three generations, qualifying the species as Vulnerable. At South Georgia, this species is undergoing a rapid decline over three generations (70 years). On the Crozet and Kerguelen Islands, the populations rapidly declined between 1970-1986, then stabilised, but have recently declined again. Longline fishing is believed to be a main cause of decline in this species, causing reductions in adult survival and juvenile recruitment, and this threat is ongoing.


History
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Not Recognized (NR)
  • Not Recognized (NR)