Diomedeidae – Albatrosses

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche carteri ©Trevor Hardaker Website

The Diomedeidae or Albatrosses are large seabirds allied to the procellariids, storm petrels and diving petrels in the order Procellariiformes (the tubenoses). They range widely in the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific. They are absent from the North Atlantic, although fossil remains show they once occurred there and occasional vagrants are found. Albatrosses are among the largest of flying birds, and the great albatrosses (genus Diomedea) have the largest wingspans of any extant birds, reaching up to 3.7 metres. They are usually regarded as falling into four genera, but there is disagreement over the number of species.

They are highly efficient in the air, using dynamic soaring and slope soaring to cover great distances with little exertion. They feed on squid, fish and krill by either scavenging, surface seizing or diving. Albatrosses are colonial, nesting for the most part on remote oceanic islands, often with several species nesting together. Pair bonds between males and females form over several years, with the use of ‘ritualised dances’, and will last for the life of the pair. A breeding season can take over a year from laying to fledging, with a single egg laid in each breeding attempt.

Most albatrosses range in the Southern Hemisphere from Antarctica to Australia, South Africa and South America. The exceptions to this are the four North Pacific albatrosses, of which three occur exclusively in the North Pacific, from Hawaii to Japan, California and Alaska; and one, the waved albatross, breeds in the Galápagos Islands and feeds off the coast of South America. The need for wind to enable gliding is the reason albatrosses are for the most part confined to higher latitudes: being unsuited to sustained flapping flight makes crossing the doldrums extremely difficult. The exception, the Waved Albatross, is able to live in the equatorial waters around the Galápagos Islands because of the cool waters of the Humboldt Current and the resulting winds.

The albatross diet is predominantly cephalopods, fish, crustaceans, and offal, although they will also scavenge carrion and feed on other zooplankton. Until recently it was thought that albatrosses were predominantly surface feeders, swimming at the surface and snapping up squid and fish pushed to the surface by currents, predators, or death. The deployment of capillary depth recorders, which record the maximum dive depth undertaken by a bird, has shown that while some species, like the Wandering Albatross, do not dive deeper than a metre, some species, like the Light-mantled Albatross, have a mean diving depth of almost 5 m and can dive as deep as 12.5m. In addition to surface feeding and diving, they have also been observed plunge diving from the air to snatch prey.

Albatrosses live much longer than most other birds; they delay breeding for longer and invest more effort into fewer young. Most species survive upwards of 50 years, the oldest recorded being a northern royal albatross that was ringed as an adult and survived for another 51 years, giving it an estimated age of 61. Given that most albatross ringing projects are considerably younger than that, it is thought likely that other species will prove to live at least as long.

All the southern albatrosses create large nests for their egg, utilising grass, shrubs, soil, peat, and even penguin feathers, whereas the three species in the North Pacific make more rudimentary nests. The waved albatross, on the other hand, makes no nest and will even move its egg around the pair’s territory, as much as 50m, sometimes causing it to lose the egg. In all albatross species, both parents incubate the egg in stints that last between one day and three weeks. Incubation lasts around 70 to 80 days (longer for the larger albatrosses), the longest incubation period of any bird. It can be an energetically demanding process, with the adult losing as much as 83g of body weight a day.

Albatross chicks take a long time to fledge. In the case of the Great Albatrosses, it can take up to 280 days; even for the smaller albatrosses, it takes anywhere between 140 and 170 days.

According to the IOC there are considered to be 21 species of Albatrosses in the family Diomedeidae; they are:

Laysan Albatross Phoebastria immutabilis
Black-footed Albatross Phoebastria nigripes
Waved Albatross Phoebastria irrorata
Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus

Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans
Antipodean Albatross Diomedea antipodensis
Amsterdam Albatross Diomedea amsterdamensis
Tristan Albatross Diomedea dabbenena
Southern Royal Albatross Diomedea epomophora
Northern Royal Albatross Diomedea sanfordi

Sooty Albatross Phoebetria fusca
Light-mantled Albatross Phoebetria palpebrata

Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophris
Campbell Albatross Thalassarche impavida
Shy Albatross Thalassarche cauta
Chatham Albatross Thalassarche eremita
Salvin’s Albatross Thalassarche salvini
Grey-headed Albatross Thalassarche chrysostoma
Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche chlororhynchos
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche carteri
Buller’s Albatross Thalassarche bulleri

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 21

Useful Reading
  • Albatross: their world, their ways

    by Tui De Roy, Mark Jones and Julian Fitter RSPB with A&C Black £35 ISBN: 9780713688122 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Field Guide to the Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World

    by Derek Onley and Paul ScofieldSeries: HELM FIELD GUIDES 224 pages, 46 colour plates, distribution maps.Christopher Helm 2007 ISBN: 9780713643329 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Seabirds

    by Peter Harrison - Helm 1985 ISBN: 071363510X Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Seabirds ? a natural history

    by Anthony J Gaston A&C Black 2004
    See Fatbirder Review ISBN: 0713665572 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Albatross Project

    Wake Forest University's Albatross Project
  • Save the Albatross

    Diaries from newly appointed Task Force members
  • Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association

    SOSSA was founded by members of the New South Wales Albatross Study Group (NSWASG) in 1994. It was set up to be an umbrella organisation for many study groups concerned with studies of Southern Ocean bio-diversity. SOSSA is a wildlife research and conservation group which consists of dedicated people both professional and amateur. These people share a common interest and concern for the environment and the wildlife of the Southern Oceans.
  • Royal Albatross Centre - Taiaroa Head

    The Royal Albatross Colony at Taiaroa Head, on the tip of the Peninsula, is the only mainland breeding colony of albatross in the world
Other Links
  • Albatross Identification Card

    Anyone interested in seabirds can use this laminated, quick-reference card to identify the Laysan albatross, black-footed albatross, and the rare short-tailed albatross in the North Pacific. The card was designed for commercial fishermen, who are required by federal regulation to avoid killing short-tailed albatrosses. Albatrosses and other birds can get hooked when they grab bait on fishing lines…
  • Seabird Osteology

    The Seabirds Skull Gallery, existing since 2002, has only been changed a bit and was given a new name that covers the subject more properly. After two years working on this site it is not only skulls anymore that are shown. Regular visitors have already noticed that since December 2004 the scope has widened. It now includes also other parts of the seabird skeleton. In the Seabird Osteology section general aspects of seabird osteology are treated and in the species section you willl find a listing of families and groups with links to pages on skeletons of particular species or groups. There is always work in progress, which means that there will be additions and improvements from time to time…

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