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 )
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.
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
Habitat and Ecology
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 2327 samples.
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
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
Note: this information has not been validated. Check this *note*. Your feedback is most welcome.
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 )
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.
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.
- 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)
Life History and Behavior
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
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.
Status: wild: 60 (high) years.
Status: wild: 415 months.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
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)
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Diomedea exulans
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 7
Species With Barcodes: 1
Diomedea exulans exulans and Diomedea exulans antipodensis are listed by the IUCN Red list and Birdlife International as being vulnerable; Diomedea exulans dabbenena is listed as endangered, and Diomedea exulans amsterdamensis is listed as critically endangered.
All subspecies of Diomedea exulans 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. Diomedea exulans 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.
Some conservation measures that have been taken include removal of introduced predators from islands, listing breeding habitats as World Heritage Sites, fishery relocation, and population monitoring.
US Migratory Bird Act: no special status
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: vulnerable
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
CMS Appendix II and ACAP Annex 1. Population monitoring and foraging studies are being undertaken at South Georgia (Georgias del Sur), the Prince Edward Islands, Crozet, Kerguelen and Macquarie. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has introduced measures which have reduced bycatch of albatrosses around South Georgia by over 99%. Recently, other Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, including the tuna commissions, have taken initial steps to reduce seabird bycatch rates. The Prince Edward Islands are a special nature reserve and Macquarie is a World Heritage Site. Large parts of the breeding colonies on the Crozet and Kerguelen Islands are now part of a Nature Reserve. On Macquarie, cats have been eradicated (Quin 2008) and an operation targeting rabbits, rats, and mice commenced in winter 2010.Conservation Actions Proposed
Continue population monitoring programs at all sites to allow assessment of population trends, survival and production rates. Continue tracking studies to determine spatial and temporal overlap with fisheries for populations and life stages where these data do not exist. Promote adoption of best-practice mitigation measures in all fisheries within the species's range, including via intergovernmental mechanisms such as ACAP, FAO and Regional Fisheries Management Organisations.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Wandering albatrosses, along with other seabirds, follow fishing boats to take advantage of helpless fish and are reputed to reduce economic output from these fisheries. Albatrosses also become incidental bycatch, hampering conservation efforts.
Wandering albatrosses have extraordinary morphology, with perhaps the longest wingspan of any bird. Their enormous size also makes them popular in ecotourism excursions, especially for birders. Declining population numbers also mean increased conservation efforts. Their relative tameness towards humans makes them ideal for research and study.
Positive Impacts: ecotourism ; research and education
IUCN Red List Category
The wandering albatross, snowy albatross or white-winged albatross (Diomedea exulans) is a large seabird from the family Diomedeidae, which has a circumpolar range in the Southern Ocean. It was the first species of albatross to be described, and was long considered the same species as the Tristan albatross and the Antipodean albatross. A few authors still consider them all subspecies of the same species. The SACC has a proposal on the table to split this species, and BirdLife International has already split it. Together with the Amsterdam albatross, it forms the wandering albatross species complex. The wandering albatross is the largest member of the genus Diomedea (the great albatrosses), one of the largest birds in the world, and one of the best known and studied species of bird in the world.
- Diomedea exulans exulans
- Diomedea exulans gibsoni (sometimes known as Gibson's albatross, and treated as a full species, Diomedea gibonsi, by some authorities)
Some experts considered there to be four subspecies of D. exulans, which they elevated to species status, and use the term wandering albatross to refer to a species complex that includes the proposed species D. antipodensis, D. dabbenena, D. exulans, and D. gibonsi.
Wandering albatrosses spend most of their life in flight, landing only to breed and feed. Distances traveled each year are hard to measure, but one banded bird was recorded traveling 6000 km in twelve days.
The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, typically ranging from 2.51 to 3.5 m (8 ft 3 in to 11 ft 6 in), with a mean span of 3.1 m (10 ft 2 in) in the Bird Island, South Georgia colony and an average of exactly 3 m (9 ft 10 in) in 123 birds measured off the coast of Malabar, New South Wales. On the Crozet Islands, adults averaged 3.05 m (10 ft 0 in) in wingspan. The longest-winged examples verified have been about 3.7 m (12 ft 2 in). Even larger examples have been claimed, with two giants reportedly measuring 4.22 m (13 ft 10 in) and 5.3 m (17 ft 5 in) but these reports remain unverified. As a result of its wingspan, it is capable of remaining in the air without flapping its wings for several hours at a time (travelling 22 m for every metre of drop). The length of the body is about 107 to 135 cm (3 ft 6 in to 4 ft 5 in) with females being slightly smaller than males. Adults can weigh from 5.9 to 12.7 kg (13 to 28 lb), although most will weigh 6.35 to 11.91 kg (14.0 to 26.3 lb). On Macquarie Island, three males averaged 8.4 kg (19 lb) and three females averaged 6.2 kg (14 lb). In the Crozet Islands, males averaged 9.44 kg (20.8 lb) while females averaged 7.84 kg (17.3 lb). However, 10 unsexed adults from the Crozets averaged 9.6 kg (21 lb). On South Georgia, 52 males were found to average 9.11 kg (20.1 lb) while 53 females were found to average 7.27 kg (16.0 lb). Immature birds have been recorded weighing as much as 16.1 kg (35 lb) during their first flights (at which time they may still have fat reserves that will be shed as they continue to fly). On South Georgia, fledglings were found to average 10.9 kg (24 lb). Albatrosses from outside the "snowy" wandering albatross group (D. e. exulans) are smaller but are now generally deemed to belong to different species. The plumage varies with age, with the juveniles starting chocolate brown. As they age they become whiter. The adults have white bodies with black and white wings. Males have whiter wings than females with just the tips and trailing edges of the wings black. They also show a faint peach spot on the side of the head. The wandering albatross is the whitest of the wandering albatross species complex, the other species having a great deal more brown and black on the wings and body as breeding adults, very closely resembling immature wandering albatrosses. The large bill is pink, as are the feet. They also have a salt gland that is situated above the nasal passage and helps desalinate their bodies, due to the high amount of ocean water that they imbibe. It excretes a high saline solution from their nose.
|South Georgia Islands||1,553 pair||2006||Decreasing 4%/year|
|Prince Edward Island||1,850 pair||2003||Stable|
|Marion Island||1,600 pair||2008|
|Crozet Islands||2,000 pair||1997||Declining|
|Kerguelen Islands||1,100 pair||1997|
|Macquarie Island||10 pair||2006|
Wanderers have a large range of displays from screams and whistles to grunts and bill clapping. When courting they will spread their wings, wave their heads, and rap their bills together, while braying. They can live for over 50 years.
Pairs of wandering albatrosses mate for life and breed every two years. Breeding takes place on subantarctic islands and commences in early November. The nest is a mound of mud and vegetation, and is placed on an exposed ridge near the sea. During the early stages of the chick's development, the parents take turns sitting on the nest while the other searches for food. Later, both adults hunt for food and visit the chick at irregular intervals.
They are night feeders and feed on cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans and on animal refuse that floats on the sea, eating to such excess at times that they are unable to fly and rest helplessly on the water. They are prone to following ships for refuse. They can also make shallow dives.
The wandering albatross breeds every other year. At breeding time they occupy loose colonies on isolated island groups in the Southern Ocean. They lay one egg that is white, with a few spots, and is about 10 cm (3.9 in) long. They lay this egg between 10 December and 5 January. The nests are a large bowl built of grassy vegetation and soil peat, that is 1 metre wide at the base and half a metre wide at the apex. Incubation takes about 11 weeks and both parents are involved. They are a monogamous species, usually for life. Adolescents return to the colony within six years; however they will not start breeding until 11 to 15 years. About 30% of fledglings survive.
The wandering albatross breeds on South Georgia Island, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, Prince Edward Islands, and Macquarie Island, is seen feeding year round off the Kaikoura Peninsula on the east coast of the south island of New Zealand and it ranges in all the southern oceans from 28° to 60°.
Relationship with humans
Sailors used to capture the birds for their long wing bones, which they manufactured into tobacco-pipe stems. The early explorers of the great Southern Sea cheered themselves with the companionship of the albatross in their dreary solitudes; and the evil fate of he who shot with his cross-bow the "bird of good omen" is familiar to readers of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The metaphor of "an albatross around his neck" also comes from the poem and indicates an unwanted burden causing anxiety or hindrance. In the days of sail the bird often accompanied ships for days, not merely following it, but wheeling in wide circles around it without ever being observed to land on the water. It continued its flight, apparently untired, in tempestuous as well as moderate weather.
The Maori of New Zealand used albatross as a food source. They caught them by baiting hooks. Because the wing bones of albatross were light but very strong Maori used these to create a number of different items including koauau (flutes), needles, tattooing chisel blades, and barbs for fish hooks.
The IUCN lists the wandering albatross as vulnerable status. Adult mortality is 5% to 7% per year. It has an occurrence range of 64,700,000 km2 (25,000,000 sq mi), although its breeding range is only 1,900 km2 (730 sq mi).
In 2007, there were an estimated 25,500 adult birds, broken down to 1,553 pairs on South Georgia Island, 1,850 pairs on Prince Edward Island, 1,600 on Marion Island, 2,000 on Crozet Islands, 1,100 on the Kerguelen Islands, and 12 on Macquarie Island for a total of 8,114 breeding pairs. The South Georgia population is shrinking at 1.8% per year. The levels of birds at Prince Edward and the Crozet Islands seem to be stabilizing although most recently there may be some shrinking of the population.
The biggest threat to their survival is longline fishing; however, pollution, mainly plastics and fishing hooks, are also taking a toll.
The CCAMLR has introduced measures to reduce bycatch of albatrosses around South Georgia by 99%, and other regional fishing commissions are taking similar measures to reduce fatalities. The Prince Edward Islands are a nature preserve, and the Macquarie Islands are a World Heritage site. Finally, large parts of the Crozet Islands and the Kerguelen Islands are a nature preserve.
- Sarus crane, the tallest flying bird alive today
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