With broad wings tailor-made for long journeys, albatrosses are a spectacle in the world of sea birds. As we study varying types of albatross, we discover each species' habitats, distinguishable features, and conservation status. This exploration also provides us with an understanding of their indispensable contribution to our ecosystem. Let's soar into the world of these sea voyagers.
Albatross Taxonomic Classification
Albatross, spanning between 13 to 24 species, fall into four genera within the Diomedeidae family, which belongs to Procellariiformes, otherwise known as the tubenoses. The genera are:
- The Diomedea, or the great albatrosses.
- The Thalassarche, or the mollymawks.
- The Phoebastria, or the North Pacific albatrosses.
- The Phoebetria, known as the sooty albatrosses or sooties.
The impressive great albatrosses speak volumes as they spread their giant wings across the Arctic Ocean. Displaying predominantly white plumage as adults, it's no surprise that this genus hosts the world's largest flying birds.
Meanwhile, mollymawks are medium-sized albatrosses. They are a common sight dominating the landscapes of the Southern Hemisphere. Set adrift in tropical seas are the North Pacific albatrosses. Interestingly, the mollymawks and North Pacific albatrosses were long seen as part of the Diomedea genus. However, their mitochondrial DNA revealed them in their own genus in 19962.
Presenting the sooty albatross, a compelling medium-sized species that captivates with its sooty-brown or sooty-black color. They grace the southern Atlantic Ocean, the southern Indian Ocean, and the Southern Ocean with their presence.
The following sections guide you through the features, habitats, and diets of 22 species IUCN and BirdLife International identified. The list includes six giant albatrosses, ten mollymawks, four North Pacific albatrosses, and two sooty albatrosses.
Related Read: Albatross Facts.
22 Types of Albatross Species
1. Snowy Albatross (Diomedea exulans)
The Snowy albatross, also called the White-winged albatross or goonie, is genuinely an impressive bird. Boasting the longest wingspan of any living bird, it typically measures between 8 feet 3 inches and 12 feet.
Notably, our understanding of the Snowy albatross' taxonomy has evolved; some experts have proposed recognizing four subspecies as separate species, grouping them under the wandering albatross" species complex. This complex includes Tristan Albatross, Antipodean Albatross, and Snowy Albatross.
The Snowy albatross' plumage changes strikingly as it ages. Starting life as a chocolate-brown juvenile, it gradually transforms until, as an adult, it sports a white body with black and white wings. Interestingly, males possess whiter wings than females, maintaining only black tips and trailing edges.
Regarding range, these wandering albatrosses are tireless travelers1. With a circumpolar distribution in the Southern Ocean, some individuals have been known to circle this vast expanse three times in a year - a journey exceeding 75,000 miles.
The latest IUCN reports list them as vulnerable albatross species primarily due to longline fishing.
2. Tristan Albatross (Diomedea dabbenena)
The Tristan Albatross lives only in the remote islands of the South Atlantic, specifically Gough Island and Inaccessible Island, which are part of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago.
It is one of the largest flying birds with a wingspan of up to 10 feet, dark upper wings, and a pale pink bill with a dark tip complementing its predominantly white body.
Unfortunately, the Tristan Albatross is critically endangered5, with less than 4,800 mature individuals in the wild. The introduction of house mice, which prey on the seabirds, has caused their population to decrease on Gough Island.
Moreover, longline fishing causes around 500 Tristan Albatrosses to drown. Climate changes could also further impact their primary food sources of squid and fish, making their future uncertain.
3. Antipodean Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis)
The Antipodean Albatross flies over the southern Pacific Ocean. Its name came from the Antipodes Islands and the Chatham Islands, where it resides.
The bird's plumage is a mix of brown and white, with males generally being lighter in color than females. It has a uniquely long, pink, and hooked beak, which helps them catch squid, their primary diet, with occasional fish and crustaceans.
According to a study of the taxonomy of the wandering albatross species complex, the lesser genetic differentiation between the Antipodean Albatross and Gibson’s Albatross warrants the former to be a subspecies of the latter.
4. Amsterdam Albatross (Diomedea amsterdamensis)
The Amsterdam Albatross is a noteworthy species unique among the albatross family for its exclusive breeding colony on Amsterdam Island in the southern Indian Ocean.
This large bird, first described in detail in 1983, had long been speculated to be a subspecies of the snowy albatross. However, genetic examination through mitochondrial DNA has set it apart as a distinct species. It's differentiated from fellow members of the wandering albatross complex listed above.
Sporting a striking brown plumage that departs from the more common white of other albatrosses, the Amsterdam albatross boasts wings that spread up to 10.8 feet in breadth.
The adult bird is a stunning spectacle with its snowy face and underparts, contrasting crisply with its rich chocolate-brown upper parts and distinguishing brown breast band. A dark-tipped pink bill and similarly hued underwings further make it unique.
Despite its beauty, the Amsterdam albatross is unfortunately in a precarious position. Classified as endangered by the IUCN, its population is restricted largely to Amsterdam Island.
Conservationists' efforts have seen a recent upswing in their numbers, though warnings abound. If bycatch levels exceed more than six individuals annually, a potentially irreparable population decline could ensue, leading to reclassification as critically endangered
5. Southern Royal Albatross (Diomedea epomophora)
The Southern Royal Albatross boasts a formidable wingspan spanning up to 11.5 feet. It spends most of its life airborne, dominating the oceanic expanse. Regularly sighted along the Southern South American coasts and in New Zealand waters, it is hard to miss.
Albatross chicks cast an eye-catching figure with a pale ensemble of a white head, neck, rump, and mantle speckled with black. Their underparts and tail are also white, albeit their tail's black tip stands out. Dark brown or black wings generously flecked with white complete their appearance.
Subtle differences, such as the absence of a peach neck spot and the clean black and white coloration, set the southern royals apart from wandering albatrosses. Moreover, the white feathers extend from the middle of the wing rather than on the edges. A key identifier is their pink bills, notably darker along the upper mandible's cutting edge, another distinction from their wandering cousins.
6. Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi)
The Northern Royal Albatross, a resident of the Southern Ocean, primarily frequents the waters around New Zealand and the sub-Antarctic islands. These birds call the Chatham Islands and Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula their home each breeding season.
In New Zealand, you can visit the popular Northern Royal Albatross colony to witness the seabirds up close.
The distinct plumage of the juvenile Northern Royal Albatross is a combination of white and black-brown. As these birds mature, their head, back, rump, tail, and scapular regions lighten, appearing increasingly white. They boast a wingspan of impressive proportions, sometimes stretching up to 10 feet.
A notable difference that sets the Northern and Southern Albatross species apart is their respective conservation statuses. With only 17,000 Northern Royalty Albatrosses remaining, they are classified as endangered, unlike the slightly more thriving 27,200 Southern Albatrosses, which are categorized as vulnerable. Both face threats of longline fishing and predation.
7. Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos)
The Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross lives in the southern Atlantic Ocean and is known for its long-distance foraging trips. It has a distinct yellow culmen, darker at the tip, and inhabits the remote islands of Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island.
The bird prefers to feed alone and mainly eats fresh fish, squid, and crustaceans. Unlike great albatrosses, mollymawks breed annually instead of biennial. They nurture a single egg with its partner and return to the same nesting spot year after year.
Facing the threats of long-line fishing, these endangered species are experiencing rapid population declines.
8. Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche carteri)
The Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross is a medium-sized bird found in the southern region of the Indian Ocean. They have a distinct yellow bill plate and migrate northward during their non-breeding period.
Similar to their former parent species, the Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, they are endangered, fighting similar challenges.
9. Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris)
The Black-browed Albatross is the most widespread in the family, breeding in 12 locations across the Southern Ocean. This medium-sized albatross has a wingspan reaching up to 7.8 feet. It has a distinctive black stripe above the eyes and a yellow-orange bill.
10. Campbell Albatross (Thalassarche impavida)
The Campbell Albatross offers a riveting tale of taxonomical discovery. Initially considered a member of the black-browed albatross family, a proposal by Robertson and Nunn in 1998 suggested elevating their designation. This view gained traction over the next few years, garnering agreement from BirdLife International in 2000.
The adult Campbell is strikingly similar to its former parent species but bears pale eyes, a black triangle around the eye stretching to its yellow bill, tipped with orange. It's primarily white, with a black upper wing, back, and tail.
This type of albatross breeds solely on New Zealand's Campbell Island and the nearby islet of Jeanette Marie.
11. Grey-headed Albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma)
The Grey-headed Albatross has a grey head contrasting its white underparts and black upper wings. Its bill is yellow with a pink tip. Unlike other mollymawks, It breeds once every two years, taking a one-year break after raising albatross chicks.
This bird lives in the Southern Ocean on isolated islands like South Georgia Island, Prince Edward Island, and Macquarie Island. Moreover, its diet mainly consists of squid, but it feeds on fish and crustaceans.
Data from South Georgia colonies, which hold half of their population, reports a possible rapid population decline of the species over three generations spanning 90 years3. The main culprit for these severe numbers is the incidental deaths from longline fishing.
12. Buller's Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri)
The Buller's Albatross inhabits the subantarctic waters of New Zealand and Australia. It exhibits a distinct grey head and upper neck contrasting with its white underparts and dark grey to black wings.
The bird also has a bright yellow bill that darkens at the upper mandible, distinguishing it from other albatross species. It congregates in large colonies on island slopes and cliffs during breeding, laying only one egg annually..
13. Shy albatross (Thalassarche cauta)
The Shy Albatross, once considered the same species as Salvin's, White-capped, and Chatham's albatrosses, was split apart by Roberston and Nunn in 1998. This classification divergence, acknowledged by BirdLife International in 200, paved the way for further expansion of this bird family.
Displaying an impressive wingspan of 8.4 feet, the Shy Albatross, alongside Salvin's Albatross, is the largest of the mollymawks. This slate-grey bird, showcasing a black thumb mark at the base of its underwing leading edge, has an equally resonating appearance.
It presents a white forehead and crown, adding a contrast against a dark eyebrow and pale grey face. The mantle, tail, and upper wing are grey-black, with the remaining body white. The grey-yellow bill, with a visible yellow tip and culmen, completes its spectacle.
Feeding behaviors show that the Shy Albatross combines surface seizing with some pursuit diving, reaching depths up to 16 feet. It is thus adaptable in the search for its survival. Laying one egg annually, they breed on three island colonies off Tasmania in the southern Indian Ocean. They are also the only endemic albatross in Australia.
14. White-capped Albatross (Thalassarche steadi)
The White-capped Albatross, a native of the Southern Hemisphere, spreads its wings to an impressive 8.4 feet. This seabird presents a striking contrast of a bold white cap against dark brows and a silvery gray face. Notably, adults flash a white back adorned with brown-tipped feathers.
Inhabitants of New Zealand's coastal islands, these albatrosses venture out to other southern oceans in search of food. Predominantly surface feeders, they occasionally dive shallowly to catch fish, cephalopods, tunicates, and crustaceans.
15. Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche salvini)
The Salvin's Albatross is a large seabird with a pale grey head, neck, and blackish-grey feathered upperparts. It has a distinctive pale grey bill with a yellow ridge and tip.
The bird spends most of its life in the open sea, commonly seen in the waters around New Zealand. It forms colonies on the Bounty Islands during breeding season, often choosing steep slopes and cliffs for nesting.
16. Chatham Albatross (Thalassarche eremita)
The Chatham Albatross has a greyish head, snowy-white body, orange cheek stripe, and jet-black upper wings.
The species calls The Pyramid in the Chatham Islands its home and returns each breeding season, which starts in November. The bird lays a single egg during the annual breeding season, and both parents share the responsibility of incubation and chick-rearing equally.
Chatham and Salvin's Albatrosses, two of the four sister species, sadly hold vulnerable status. The Chatham Albatross, nesting on a singular small island, has felt the brunt of habitat deterioration.
A severe storm in 1985 decimated vegetation, but since 1998, conditions have gradually improved. Yet, they still face threats from commercial fishing and occasional chick harvesting.
The Salvin's Albatross shares a similar tale, with fishing industries posing significant threats. Both species showcase the undeniable impact of human activity on our feathered friends.
17. Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes)
The Black-footed Albatross, though small for its family, boasts an impressive wingspan that stretches up to 7.2 feet. Unlike most albatross species, it primarily has black plumage, with a touch of white around the base of the beak and under the eye. These markers, like an artist's imprint, only amplify with age.
Regarding distribution, unlike its southern colleagues, the Black-footed Albatross dwells in the northern hemisphere. Its presence is evident in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which host over 97.5% of the population, while the rest are sprinkled across two Japanese islands and the Mexican coast.
Like all types of albatross, they also form lifelong partnerships. A careful progression from nest-building to dance-offs creates a bond rooted in trust and commitment. Only after this meticulous seven-year process do they commence breeding, which they do every two years.
18. Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)
The Waved Albatross mates in the Galapagos Islands, hence their other name, Galapagos Albatross. During the non-breeding season, they live on the Ecuadorian and Peruvian coasts.
It has a yellowish-cream neck and head, a predominantly white body, and dark brown upper wings that show a wavelike pattern.
The Waved Albatross, often struggling with their takeoffs due to their hefty weight and expansive 7-8 foot wingspan, requires a strong gust of wind to aid their ascent. While their starting maneuvers appear clumsy, their flight is a different story.
Skilled navigators of the wind use dynamic soaring to glide efficiently in the ever-changing wind speeds. They soar for hours, covering vast distances with little effort, before facing the challenge of a careful landing.
Sadly, Waved Albatrosses has long been deemed Critically Endangered since 20074. Climate change exacerbates albatross mortality rates and problematic interactions with the fishing industry.
Fisheries in Ecuador and Peru have reported high cases of incidental and targeted seabird bycatch, an issue worsened by their preference for males, upsetting the species' sex ratio.
19. Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus)
The Short-tailed Albatross, also known as Steller's Albatross, is a medium-sized bird species. Its defining features include a wingspan of about 7.6 feet and white plumage with contrasting black flight feathers.
It also has a unique crown and nape with a slight yellow tinge and a pink bill that later develops a blue tip as the bird matures. Meanwhile, juveniles start their lives with an all-over brown color that whitens with age.
Inhabiting islands south of Japan and the East China Sea, their existence hangs by a thread. Their breeding range is limited to just Torishima and Minami-Kojima, which are located on the Senkaku Islands.
This limited breeding range and susceptibility to unpredictable events and human impacts maintain their status as a vulnerable species. Despite conservation efforts leading to a steady population increase, the number of mature Short-tailed Albatrosses stands at a sobering 1,734.
20. Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis)
The Laysan albatross possesses a wingspan stretching from 6.4 to 6.67 feet. This specimen displays a blackish-gray pattern adorning its upperwing, mantle, back, upper rump, and tail, which contrasts its white head, lower rump, and underparts. Its bill exhibits a pink hue with a dark tip.
Moreover, the upper rump of a juvenile albatross of this species carries a gray shade, along with a gray bill.
Laysan albatrosses establish their presence across a broad range in the North Pacific. They are primarily found scattered across 16 nesting sites. Of the total 1.6 million breeding population, approximately 99%, call the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands home, especially the islands of Midway and Laysan.
Life longevity is another noteworthy trait of this type of albatross. Wisdom, a female Laysan, holds the longest lifespan for a bird, aging at least 70 years old.
First banded by the U.S. Geological Survey researcher back in 1956, Wisdom successfully hatched her latest chick in February 2021.
21. Sooty Albatross (Phoebetria fusca)
The Sooty Albatross, medium-sized with a wingspan extending to 6.6 feet, boasts a variety of dark shades. Distinguished colors range from sooty brown to an almost black hue.
It also has a white ring that almost entirely surrounds the eye, contrasting with its darkly colored head. A streak of yellow to orange on its beak’s lower jaw adds a splash of color to its otherwise uniform glossy black beak.
This bird is mainly at home in marine environments like the southern Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Southern Ocean. Its feeding method is rather intriguing. Instead of plunging beneath the waves like other seabirds, this species mainly surface-seizes - requiring barely any submersion. Squid, fish, and carrion are among their preferred meals.
Notably, the Sooty Albatross breeds biennially, repeating their attempts only when rearing a chick unsuccessfully. Despite these survival strategies, they face dire threats.
Classified as an endangered species, this bird encounters a dramatic decline due to engagement with fisheries. Adult and juvenile albatrosses are caught as bycatch. Meanwhile, terrestrial threats include invasive predators and infectious diseases.
22. Light-mantled Albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata)
The Light-mantled Albatross, also known as the Grey-mantled Albatross or the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, has a distinctive sooty-brown or blackish color, with the deepest tones found commonly on its head. Its back and upper tail coverts showcase a noticeably lighter grey to light grey shade, similar to the coloring of a Siamese cat.
These pelagic seabirds navigate the Southern Ocean for most of their lives except during mating season when they remain closer to their nesting sites.
Weimerskirch, H., Delord, K., Guitteaud, A., Phillips, R. A., & Pinet, P. (2015). Extreme variation in migration strategies between and within wandering albatross populations during their sabbatical year and their fitness consequences. Scientific Reports, 5(1).
Cooper, J., Jouventin, P., & Robertson, G. (1996). Evolutionary Relationships among Extant Albatrosses (Procellariiformes: Diomedeidae) Established from Complete Cytochrome-B Gene Sequences. The Auk, 113(4), 784–801.
BirdLife International. (2018). Thalassarche chrysostoma. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22698398A132644834.
BirdLife International. (2018). Phoebastria irrorata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22698320A132641638.
BirdLife International. (2018). Diomedea dabbenena. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22728364A132657527.