Antipodean albatross (Diomedea antipodensis)

GenusDiomedea (1)
SizeLength: 110 cm (2)
Weight4.5 – 10 kg (3)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (4).

A magnificent seabird with a huge, three-metre wingspan (5), the Antipodean albatross was once considered to be a subspecies of the well-known wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), but recent genetic studies have confirmed that it is a distinct species (2) (6). The female Antipodean albatross has chocolate-brown upperparts, interspersed with irregular white, wavy patterns, while the male’s upperparts are much whiter (2). In both sexes, the crown of the head has brown markings, which may vary from a small patch, to a broad cap extending down to the nape of the neck (7). The remainder of the head and body are white, with the exception of the tips of the wings, which are black (2). Although there is still some contention, many scientists accept the separation of the Antipodean albatross into two subspecies: Diomedea antipodensis antipodensis and Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni. The male Diomedea antipodensis antipodensis has a darker head cap, darker tail and is less white than Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni, while the female Diomedea antipodensis antipodensis has a distinct, brown breast band (2).

Endemic to New Zealand, the breeding grounds of the Antipodean albatross are limited to the subantarctic islands of the South Pacific. Diomedea antipodensis antipodensis breeds on Antipodes Island, with a small population also breeding on the islands of Pitt and Campbell (part of the Chatham Islands group). Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni breeds on the islands of Adams, Disappointment and Auckland (part of the Auckland Islands group) (8). The Antipodean albatross travels huge distances when foraging and has been recorded in the Tasman Sea, around southern Australia, and in the South Pacific as far as the coast of Chile (2).

A pelagic species, the Antipodean albatross spends much of its life at sea (5). It returns to land during the breeding season, where it nests on the windswept islands of the subantarctic region (2). Nests are constructed in the open or, more commonly, among tussock grass and shrubs, avoiding regions with tall vegetation and the highly exposed tops of hills and ridges (5).

Using its expansive wings, the Antipodean albatross can glide for vast distances, expending very little energy as it searches for food. It feeds predominantly on dead squid found floating at the surface (5), and on fish (2). After fledging, the Antipodean albatross may spend up to five years at sea without ever touching land, and only really spends significant time ashore at about ten years old, when it is ready to start breeding (5).

Antipodean albatross reproduction is a complex and lengthy process, the elaborate courtship ritual alone may be performed over many successive breeding seasons before mating finally occurs. The most striking aspect of the courtship is the dance, which involves bowing, bill snapping, mutual preening, touching bills and head shaking. Both the male and female will engage in this dance, which is believed to help strengthen the bond between breeding pairs (9). Diomedea antipodensis antipodensis populations commence egg-laying on Antipodes Island around early January and on the Chatham Islands around February (10), while Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni on the Auckland Islands breeds in late December. Rearing the chicks takes about a year, with the parent birds spending the first three months ashore incubating the egg, and the remaining nine months making foraging trips out to sea and returning to feed the chick. Depending on specific populations’ breeding times, most chicks fledge and leave the nest between January and February (5). If breeding is successful, the adults will not breed in the following season, thereby producing just a single chick every two to three years (5).

Populations of the Antipodean albatross have been extensively monitored in recent years, and show an estimated decline in mature individuals from around 39,000 in 1998 to 25,260 in 2007. Like other species of albatross, the key threat to the Antipodean albatross is commercial longline fishing. A shocking 58 Antipodean albatrosses were caught during a single longline fishing expedition for tuna in New Zealand fishing waters in 2006 (2). The birds dive for the bait set out on hooks on the longlines, become hooked and eventually drown (11). In addition, pigs and feral cats on Auckland island have been responsible for dramatic reductions in the populations of Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni, with both animals taking chicks, and the pigs also eating the eggs. More recently, rising ocean temperatures in the Tasman Sea have been implicated as a potential threat to Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni (2).

The Antipodean albatross is listed on Annex 1 of the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), an international agreement which aims to conserve these birds by helping to develop measures to mitigate threats to their survival (12). As a party to this agreement, the New Zealand government has agreed to only set surface longlines out at night and to use bird scaring devices (13). However, Forest and Bird, a New Zealand conservation organisation, believes that more measures are necessary, such as a restriction on fishing in the five days either side of the full moon, when the increased visibility causes more birds to be caught (14).

All the islands in the Antipodean albatross’s range are nature reserves and form part of a World Heritage Site. Proposed conservation measures include the removal of feral cats and pigs from Auckland Island, and to continue to monitor Antipodean albatross populations as well as fishing vessels and their bycatch. This information can then be used to further inform how best to protect and conserve this remarkable species (2).

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  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2014)