10 Soaring Facts About Albatrosses
To golfers, an albatross means that you’re three under par on a single hole. To poetry majors, it’s a centuries-old metaphor for unbearable burdens. To bird enthusiasts, it's one of earth’s most wondrous creatures.
1. THEY CAN LIVE INTO AT LEAST THEIR SIXTIES.
In 2013, a wild Laysan albatross named Wisdom made headlines when it was discovered she was still laying eggs and raising chicks at the age of 63. Her longevity in and of itself isn’t all that unusual: These ocean birds are known to reach their 60th and possibly even 70th birthdays.
2. THEY HAVE THE LARGEST WINGSPAN OF ANY LIVING BIRD.
The Wandering albatross has a wingspan that measures up to 11 feet 4 inches from end to end. But even that seems measly when compared to the now-extinct Pelagornis, a prehistoric seabird with a beak full of tooth-like spikes and a wingspan of at least 17 feet.
3. THE PRINCE OF WALES IS THEIR CELEBRITY SPOKESMAN.
Twenty-two species of albatross are currently known to science, and every single one is considered vulnerable, threatened, near-threatened, or endangered by conservationists. Longline fishing hooks are especially dangerous to large seabirds: The hooks, which can grab hold of and drown birds, kill an estimated 100,000 albatrosses annually.
Thankfully, the birds have a powerful ally on their side. During his Royal Navy career, Queen Elizabeth II’s oldest son, Charles, grew rather fond of the great gliders. “I remember sailing long distances across the oceans and one of the most marvelous treats of those long passages was to come out on deck and see another albatross or two circling around or following the wake of the ship," he explained to the Albatross Task Force at a reception in 2009. "There was something encouraging and heartening about the fact that you were being escorted by these extraordinary birds.” Now, he's a champion of more avian-friendly fishing techniques.
4. ALBATROSSES PAIR FOR LIFE (BUT DON'T PRACTICE MONOGAMY).
When a young albatross reaches 6 to 10 years old, it will usually start looking for a significant other. Almost all couples stick together until one party dies, forming unions that can last 50 years or longer. Still, infidelity is rampant. According to a 2006 mass paternity test, 10.7 percent of 75 sampled Waved albatross (Phoebastria irrorata) chicks weren’t sired by their mother’s mate. Another study found that one female had sex with 49 partners over a seven-week period. Males are equally promiscuous, but stay committed to helping raise their mate’s babies—including those fathered by other birds.
5. GLOBAL WARMING MAY CAUSE A (TEMPORARY) POPULATION SPIKE.
Climate change has had a huge effect on oceanic wind patterns. Come mealtime, faster air currents have enabled hungry albatrosses to not only travel greater distances but save valuable time while doing so. This is probably responsible for an average weight increase of 20 percent since the 1970s. And since the birds now spend fewer hours on food-gathering, they’re free to breed more often. The combination might increase albatross numbers across the board, though it doesn’t look sustainable long-term. Wind speeds will only keep increasing, and excessively fast airstreams are dangerous for soaring birds.
6. TIGER SHARKS ARE A TOP PREDATOR.
Fledgling albatrosses can be an easy target on the ocean’s surface. Once nesting season ends, tiger sharks tend to gravitate toward the nearest albatross hotspot in huge numbers. In some areas, the predatory fish may be responsible for taking out 10 percent of chicks reared each year.
7. ENGINEERS ARE TRYING TO DECODE THEIR FLIGHT SECRETS.
Without a single wing flap, these birds can coast for several hundred miles—a remarkable feat that no other flying creature is capable of matching. What’s the big secret? Staying current. On long trips, the big birds spend half of their time facing the wind and using it to fly upward. Then they’ll shift and dip back down towards the ocean, catching another skyward draft moments later. By repeating this technique, they can cover enormous distances with very little effort. Copying the strategy just might help humans design more fuel-efficient aircrafts.
8. THEY'VE GOT A SURPRISINGLY GOOD SENSE OF SMELL.
9. THEY HAVE A SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP WITH SUNFISH.
The world’s heaviest boned fish, common sunfishes (Mola mola), are rib-less, tailless, flat-sided oddballs. Big ones can weigh 5000 pounds and reach 11 feet in length. The critters are also very vulnerable to parasites, 40 different types of which may plague them. Luckily, they have a helpful (though not entirely selfless) ally. Recently, Laysan albatrosses have been spotted actively pursuing sunfishes from whose skin they later plucked some crustacean hitchhikers. The birds got a meal and the sunfish got a cleaning. Win-win.
10. MANY FORM SAME-SEX COUPLES.
As biologist Lindsay C. Young is quick to remind ornithologists, not all pairs are straight. “I wouldn’t assume that what you’re looking at is a male and a female,” she told the New York Times. The evidence backs up her advice. In a 2008 survey, 31 percent of the long-term Laysan albatross couples on Hawaii’s Oahu Island were revealed to be female-female partnerships. Out there, the sex ratio is quite imbalanced, with males being significantly outnumbered. So two females will often pair off, enjoy a little hetero hanky-panky on the side, and raise chicks together.