Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Albatross: Giants of the Sky

An image of Laysan Albatross showing its large wingspan taken by Monte M. Taylor
Imagine you just got married and for your honeymoon you decide to go to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to go whale watching. However, while on the boat you spot something far greater than a glimpse of a whale 100 yards away; you spot a Laysan Albatross gliding on the air right above you. To the untrained eye this looks just like any run-of-the-mill “sea gull”, except this "sea gull" has a wingspan 6 feet 8 inches long! What is even more fascinating than its sheer size is that the Laysan is actually the small cousin in the Albatross family. Laysan’s big cousin the Wandering Albatross, found in the southern hemisphere, has a wingspan of nearly 11 feet, making it the largest living bird in the world. I know, that makes the Laysan seem kind of lame now, but bear with me, it’s still quite fascinating. (All About Birds).

You see, not only is the Laysan Albatross’s wingspan as long as LeBron James is tall, but they represent great longevity. The oldest recorded Laysan is still living and is 63 years old! It takes 8 to 9 years for these birds to become sexually active and have successful breeding. A fascinating evolutionary adaptation of these birds is that they can drink salt water without becoming dehydrated. They do this by excreting the salts out of two bony tubes on their bill. Albatross’ and other birds that do this are appropriately referred to as “tubenoses” for this action. (All about birds). Granted, their populations are not strong in number, but what makes these birds really remarkable is that they are still alive after facing the challenges posed by humans. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) gives the level of concern for the Laysan Albatross as Near Threatened, and for the Black-footed and Short-tailed Albatrosses (who share range distributions with the Laysan) as Vulnerable and Endangered, respectfully. (IUCN Red List).

In a study performed by Lindsay C. Young and others, the life history of the Laysan in the Hawaiian Islands was given. It said that fossil evidence proves that the birds have been around in the Hawaiian Islands before humans were. Additionally, it mentioned how their population has plummeted since the early 20th century until the birds were eventually extirpated from the eight main Hawaiian Islands. This extirpation was due to a sundry of reasons, including; "human consumption, feather collecting, egg collection, predation from introduced mammals and military activities" (Young1). Through awareness and programs to help strengthen the population the birds are back on the islands in relatively strong numbers.

In another study led by Lindsay C. Young, two colonies of Laysan Albatross’ were examined for the amount of plastic debris fed to the young. By making the young puke up their meals, the amount of plastic ingested could be calculated. The one colony had approximately 10x more plastic fed to the young than the other, which is attributed to their closer proximity to the Western Garbage Patch. This just goes to show the more trash that is around, the more these birds will eat and feed their young (Young2).

Another study, which was performed by Eric Gilman looked at various seabirds as bycatch for many commercial fishing vessels. Some of the quick findings were that in the nine years of this study, there were 371 Laysan albatrosses retrieved (78% of which were alive). There were 144 retrieved Black-footed Albatrosses (69% of which were alive). Although the majority of these birds lived, there is still a substantial number of birds that were killed. Luckily, there are ways to limit the amount of birds caught. The Hawaiian longline swordfish fishery has required fisherman to begin incorporating these methods that are safer for the birds. Before the regulations, 0.55 seabirds were caught per 1000 hooks, but now only 0.04 seabirds are caught. (Gillman).

It is fantastic that the birds are doing better than in the past and that people are becoming more aware of the situation. It may seem as though there is little that can be done by people who don’t live on the Pacific coast, but we still have a role. We must reduce littering, no matter where we are for there are species all over the world who are suffering from our litter in the oceans. Additionally, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states that by not eating any fish caught by longline fisheries we can help promote safer fishing habits that don’t negatively impact the Albatrosses and other seabirds.
To show how charming and neat these birds can be, the courtship dance of the Laysan is shown in this video (above). 

All About Birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, N.D. Web. 22 March 2014.

Gilman, Eric, et al. “Mitigation Seabird Bycatch during Hauling by Pelagic Longline Vessels.” PLoS ONE 9:1 (Jan 2014): 1-12. Web. IUCN 2013.

IUCN Red List.International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. n.d. Web. 22 March 2014.

Young, Lindsey C. et al. “Bringing Home the Trash: Do Colony-Based Differences in Foraging Distribution lead to Increased Plastic Ingestion in Laysan Albatrosses?” PLoS ONE 4:10 (2009): 1-9. Web.

Young, Lindsay C. et al. “Demography and Natural History of Laysan Albatross on Oahu, Hawaii.” The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 121.4 (2009): 722-729. Web.

Whalegeek. “Dancing Laysan Albatrosses.” Video. YouTube. YouTube, 8 May 2010. Web. 22 March 2014.


  1. Scott, when you say the oldest living Laysan Albatross is 63 years old, is it in captivity or has someone been monitoring this animal in a group of birds?

  2. From the way it read, it is bird in the wild that has been monitored. "The oldest known individual was 63 years old, and still nesting, in 2014." (Taken from the Cornell lab of Ornithology,

  3. Thanks for the clarification!