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10 Albatross Facts: Discovering the World's Largest Sea Bird

The albatross is a bird species that has remarkable features. One of the most distinctive albatross facts is that they have large wingspans. For example, the wandering albatross has wings ranging from 8 to 11 feet, which helps them navigate the vast open air. 

Moreover, these birds have evolved to travel great distances across the oceans, relying on minimal wing flapping to fly. They also tend to build nests on faraway islands, far from humans. 

Do you want to know more about the animal kingdom? Check out these general facts about birds and read about more animals whose names start with "A!" 

10 Albatross Facts

sea bird close up view
Photo by claudiafortgeblasen on Pixabay.

1. Albatrosses have a 12-foot wingspan.

Great albatrosses have wings up to 12 feet long, which helps them survive in the wild. Their large wings are also narrow and long, minimizing air resistance and enabling "dynamic soaring," helping the bird save energy while flying over the ocean.

As the bird glides over the water, it taps into wind currents and upward airflows, obviating repeated wing flapping. This efficient travel method enables them to cover vast distances for food, though many live in the southern hemisphere.

On the other hand, the broad wings of albatrosses can pose a challenge during calm air conditions, as take-offs and landings can become difficult without strong winds. In such cases, albatrosses must run to gain speed and lift off into the sky1.

2. Albatrosses are among the world's longest-living birds.

Albatrosses belong to the Diomedeidae family and vary significantly in size and appearance across species. The key types of albatross include the Wandering Albatross, notable for its vast wingspan; the Yellow-nosed Albatross, smaller in size; the dark-plumaged Sooty Albatross; and the Royal Albatross, recognized for its impressive size and intricate courtship dance.

One interesting albatross fact is that they can live for 60 years, making them one of Earth's longest-living bird species. Unlike other birds, albatrosses have a slow growth rate, prioritizing conservation and survival. They do not rush to breed; they reach sexual maturity in five to ten years, allowing them to conserve energy and resources.

During their long lives, these birds become attached to specific habitats and food sources, making it difficult to adapt to changing conditions. Notably, some albatrosses lay eggs at 60 years.

3. Albatrosses have unique beaks.

albatross on water
Photo by traveller1955 on Pixabay.

The sharp hook of an albatross' beak is an effective tool for catching fish and squid, a diet albatrosses share among species. The albatross spends most of its time at sea, but its beak filters out excess salt; tubes on the sides of the beak aid in this process. Their ability to drink seawater helps keep them hydrated over years-long flights. 

Moreover, the albatross maintains balance during flight by expelling concentrated saltwater droplets from their beaks.

4. Albatrosses can smell food from far away.

These sea birds have a keen sense of smell that helps them navigate the ocean and locate their prey2. Their sense of sight is secondary to their sense of smell, able to detect their prey from kilometers away.

Albatrosses have a distinctive tubular structure on each side of their beaks, acting as scent-catchers. These tubes detect the scent of food carried by ocean breezes, enabling them to create an 'olfactory landscape' in their minds to guide their hunt.

Their sense of smell allows them to discriminate between different types of prey, essential in the vast sea, where they must find specific food to survive. Scientists suggest that albatrosses may also use their sense of smell to find their way home, using scent trails as invisible highways.

Their ability to smell food from afar during the breeding season becomes crucial. A well-fed albatross is more likely to be a successful parent.

5. Albatrosses can spend years without touching land.

sea bird flying
Photo by claudiafortgeblasen on Pixabay.

Next on our albatross facts list: Albatrosses can fly for long periods without returning to land. Their diet consists mainly of fish, squid, and krill, which they can catch without landing. Once they leave their nesting grounds, young albatrosses may only touch land again for several years once they are ready to breed.

Moreover, albatrosses can sleep while flying; they can shut down half of their brain, leaving the other half to remain alert for potential threats and stay on course. 

Before reading the rest of the article, did you know that excavated albatross bones revealed that ancient Eskimo and Aleut peoples ate these birds? 

6. Albatrosses perform unique courtship rituals.

Albatross courtship displays are precise, coordinated acts lasting multiple strenuous hours. The birds also use unique vocalizations to enhance the spectacle, creating a harmonic cacophony of layered calls. These calls help the birds identify potential mates.

7. Albatrosses mate for life, though they rarely see each other.

albatross' beak
Photo by angelicabest on Pixabay.

The albatross symbolizes fidelity in the natural world due to their lifelong bond with a single partner. Despite this strong connection, they tend to live solitary lives. 

During the breeding season, albatross pairs return to the same breeding grounds to incubate a single egg. Both parents take turns keeping the egg warm and embarking on separate journeys to find food. After about 165 days, the chick takes flight, and the adult birds separate until the next breeding season, each going on solo voyages.

Despite their extended separation, the bond between paired albatrosses remains unbroken. They also follow an unusual social structure, where they can occasionally breed with birds other than their usual partner. Curiously, this deviation is not a breach of trust but rather a strategy to promote genetic diversity within the population and increase the species' chances of survival.

8. Female Laysan albatrosses sometimes form female-female partnerships.

One member of the North Pacific albatrosses, the Laysan albatross, demonstrates unique social behavior, particularly among female birds. Rather than forming partnerships with males, they form lasting alliances with other females4. This behavior occurs for multiple breeding seasons, a notable deviation from typical social patterns.

The energy-efficient flight dynamics have influenced female partnerships. For example, the non-nesting partner can venture far in search of sustenance, covering more expansive territories without expending too much energy. 

9. Albatrosses lay a single egg every two years.

albatross on air
Photo by GoodGallagher on Pixabay.

Another fact about albatrosses is that they lay only one egg every two years, an uncommon occurrence among birds. The reproductive cycle of albatrosses involves a prolonged incubation period lasting about 70 to 80 days. During this time, the parents take turns warming the egg in their nest, often on secluded islands, until an albatross chick hatches.

Moreover, albatrosses employ something called K-strategy reproduction, which emphasizes parental dedication to offspring survival. This process requires significant energy and endurance, from laying the egg to incubation. 

10. Albatrosses are nearly extinct.

According to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the populations of many albatross species are facing a critical situation. Human activities have caused 15 of the 22 known albatross species to be at risk of extinction3. These species include wandering albatrosses, sooty albatrosses, waved albatrosses, and black-footed and black-browed albatrosses. (Conversely, the royal albatross has a stable population.)

For example, longline fishing, a standard commercial fishing method, often results in albatrosses getting fatally entangled while swooping down to the ocean surface. In addition, invasive species have destroyed their nests on remote islands. Climate change has also altered global conditions that reduced their habitat. 

Related read: Environmental Impact of Fishing.

Additionally, albatrosses often mistake plastic debris for food, which can cause severe internal damage and death. Due to their slow repopulation rate, these threats have dramatically affected albatross populations. Strong albatross conservation efforts are necessary to ensure these incredible birds can thrive again.

What is your favorite albatross fact? Share it on your social media feeds, and tag us!

1

Pennycuick, C. J. (1982). The flight of petrels and albatrosses (Procellariiformes), observed in South Georgia and its vicinity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 300(1098), 75-106.

2

Nevitt, G. A., & Bonadonna, F. (2005). Sensitivity to dimethyl sulphide suggests a mechanism for olfactory navigation by seabirds. Biology Letters, 1(3), 303-305.

3

Phillips, R. A., Gales, R., Baker, G. B., Double, M. C., Favero, M., Quintana, F., ... & Wolfaardt, A. C. (2016). The conservation status and priorities for albatrosses and large petrels. Biological Conservation, 201, 169-183.

4

Young, L. C., & VanderWerf, E. A. (2014). Adaptive value of same-sex pairing in Laysan albatross. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281(1775).

By Mike Gomez, BA.

Mike is a degree-qualified researcher and writer passionate about increasing global awareness about climate change and encouraging people to act collectively in resolving these issues.

Fact Checked By:
Chinny Verana, BSc.

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