Wandering Albatross Profile
In 1961, Dion and the Del Satins had a song from the perspective of an albatross. It wasn’t accurate on many counts, but it did get one thing right: they get around.
The Diomedea exulans, more commonly known as the wandering albatross is perhaps the most accomplished wanderer of any animal, with routine voyages of hundreds of kilometres per day on record-breaking wings.
They are a large seabird with a circumpolar range in the Southern Ocean, and sometimes known as snowy albatross, white-winged albatross or goonie.
Wandering Albatross Facts Overview
|Habitat:||Open Ocean, nesting in subantarctic islands|
|Location:||Southern Ocean to subtropical waters|
|Lifespan:||More than 50 years|
|Size:||3.2 meter wingspan|
|Weight:||Up to around 12 kg (26 lb)|
|Color:||Juveniles start off brown, and grow into black and white adults|
|Predators:||Few; young and eggs may be eaten by sheathbills and skuas|
|Top Speed:||80 kmph (50mph) and more for prolonged periods|
|No. of Species:
The wandering albatross breeds on islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, such as South Georgia Island, Crozet Islands, Prince Edward Island and others.
They spend most of their life in flight, and land only to breed and feed.
These are phenomenal birds, capable of surviving some of the harshest weather conditions even at the most vulnerable stages of their development.
They are slow to reproduce, spending extra time to develop into one of the biggest and most specialised animals in the air.
Sadly, this is what makes them vulnerable to population declines, and longline fishing vessels are responsible for many adult deaths.
Interesting Wandering Albatross Facts
1. They can travel 120k km (75k) miles in a year
The Wandering albatross might be the most wide-ranging of all foraging sea birds, and maybe of all animals. They’ve been tracked over 15,000 km in a single foraging trip, capable of speeds of up to 80 kmph and distances of over 900 km per day. 1
2. They’re monogamous (mostly)
This goes against the entire theme of the Del Satins song and is probably why it’s no longer used as a learning aid in the zoological curriculum.
Contrary to the promiscuous subject of the ‘60s hit, the Wandering Albatrosses mate for life and are (on average) monogamous.
When breeding, they take on incubation shifts, and it’s during these periods when the wanderer goes out on their epic voyages to return with food for their family.
Still, there’s an element of personal preference when it comes to breeding.
Most females will take a year or two off after the long and arduous task of reproduction. During this time the parents will go their separate ways, only to reunite when the time is right.
In these periods, some females will take on a temporary mate, so they can squeeze out one more chick before reuniting with their permanent nesting partner. 2
3. Wandering albatross are active in moonlight
When on these journeys, the albatross is almost constantly active. During the day they spend the entire time in the air, and while they don’t cover much distance at night, they were still recorded almost constantly moving – never stopping for more than 1.6h in the dark.
They appear to travel more on moonlit nights than on darker ones.
All of this data comes from satellite trackers attached to some birds, which are always going to skew the results.
Flying birds are optimised for weight, and trackers add to this weight, so there’s necessarily a negative effect on the individual’s fitness when lumbering them with a tracker.
Still, these subjects were able to outlast the trackers’ batteries on many occasions, and it’s safe to assume they’re capable of even more than we can realistically measure!
4. They have the largest wingspan of any bird in the world
One advantage that an albatross has over, say, a pigeon, when it comes to carrying a researcher’s hardware, is that it doesn’t need to flap much.
The albatross is the bird with the longest wingspan of any flying animal – growing up to 3.2 m (10.5 ft), and these wings are meticulously adapted for soaring.
The Guiness Book of Records claims the largest wingspan of any living species of bird was a wandering albatross with a wingspan of 3.63m (11 ft 11) caught in 1965 by scientists on the Antarctic research ship USNS Eltanin in the Tasman Sea.
Research has suggested that these wings function best against slight headwinds, and act like the sails of a boat, allowing the bird to cover more ground by “tacking”, like a sailboat: zig-zagging across the angle of the wind to make forward progress into it. 3
5. Fat chicks
As mentioned, these voyages are usually a result of foraging trips for their chicks.
The environment for a growing albatross is one of the least conducive for life. Freezing winter storms and exposed ledges make for a hilly upbringing for the baby birds.
Fed on a healthy diet of regurgitated squid, these albatross chicks grow to enormous sizes. On nesting sites, it’s not uncommon to find a fluffy baby albatross weighing up to 10kg.
These chicks are heavier than their parents, and they need the extra mass to protect them from the Winter season while they grow into fledglings. They’re also such big birds that they take longer than a season to reach maturity.
It takes around ten months of feeding, back and forth from the ocean every few days, for the parents to grow a healthy adult offspring.
6. Being a parent takes practice
When inexperienced parents were compared with those who’d brought up chicks before, it was found that their chicks are a little slower to fatten up, at least in the first few months.
Parents would feed less regularly, but with much larger amounts, and it seems to take a while to get the routine down.
By the end of the breeding season, these differences disappeared and the parents became fully qualified.
7. 25% of chicks die when they leave the colony
The huge chicks have one of the longest rearing periods of any bird, and this is after an 11-month incubation period! And if they survive all this, they still have a long way to go.
There’s a period of 3 to 7 years during which the young chick will leave the colony alone and spend the entire time at sea.
During the first two months of this learning phase, 25% of chicks die. This is a critical time for the young birds, but if they survive, they’ll return to the colony and find a mate. 4
8. They’re good sniffers
These birds feed primarily on smelly things like squid, and they’ve developed a very keen sense of smell to find them from downwind.
Wandering Albatrosses have one of the largest olfactory bulbs of any bird and they’re honed to fishy aromas.
They combine this sense with strong vision to identify productive areas of the ocean for hunting and foraging. 5
9. They are part of a ‘species complex’
When multiple species are so similar in appearance and other features, it makes their boundaries unclear and this group is known as a species complex.
The wandering albatross was long considered the same species as the Tristan albatross and the Antipodean albatross. Along with the Amsterdam albatross, they form a species complex.
Taxonomy of animals in general is tricky, and some researchers still describe them as the same species.
10. The wandering albatross is vulnerable
The ICUN has classified the wandering albatross as vulnerable, and the last study of their population size in 2007 indicated there were an estimated 25,000 birds.
The biggest threat to their survival is fishing, in particular longline fishing. This is where a long mainline is used with baited hooks, and they are prone to accidental catching of birds, as well as dolphins, sharks, turtles and other sea creatures. Pollution, mainly from plastics and fishing hooks is also a problem for birds such as the wandering albatross.
Convervation efforts are underway to reduce bycatch of albatrosses and some breeding islands are now classified as nature reserves.
Wandering Albatross Fact-File Summary
Fact Sources & References
- Jouventin, P., Weimerskirch, H (1990), “Satellite tracking of Wandering albatrosses“, Nature.
- GrrlScientist (2022), “Divorce Is More Common In Albatross Couples With Shy Males, Study Finds“, Forbes.
- Richardson, P. L., Wakefield, E. D., & Phillips, R. A. (2018), “Flight speed and performance of the wandering albatross with respect to wind“, Movement Ecology.
- Weimerskirch, H., Cherel, Y., Delord, K., Jaeger, A., Patrick, S. C., & Riotte-Lambert, L. (2014), “Lifetime foraging patterns of the wandering albatross: Life on the move!“, Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology.
- Nevitt, G. A., Losekoot, M., & Weimerskirch, H. (2008), “Evidence for olfactory search in wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans“, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.