Black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys)

GenusThalassarche (1)
SizeLength: 80 - 95 cm (2)
Wingspan: 200 - 235 cm (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List of 2007 (1). Listed under Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (3).

Albatrosses are one of the most marine of all birds, traversing the oceans of the southern hemisphere, and only returning to land to breed. They belong to the family of ‘tube-noses’, related to petrels, shearwaters and fulmars (2). The black-browed albatross is a large bird, although not amongst the largest members of their family, and are predominantly white beneath, with a dark border around the underwing. Above, the upperwing is dark grey and the bird appears as a black and white cross at a distance. The bill is yellow with a darker orange tip, and there is a dark eye-stripe, giving the birds their common English name. The sexes appear similar (4). Juvenile birds are similar to adults but have grey bills and a grey collar, as well as a dusky underwing (2).

The black-browed albatross is a bird of the southern oceans, and breeds on various islands throughout this extensive region. The principal islands are: the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic; the Indian Ocean islands of Crozet, Kerguelen and the Heard and McDonald Islands; the Southern Pacific islands of Islas Diego Ramirez, Ildefonso, Diego de Almagro and Isla Evangelistas off the coast of Chile; Macquarie Island (administered by Australia), and Campbell, Antipodes and Snares islands south of New Zealand (5). Black-brows also occur as a vagrant in the North Atlantic and individual birds have spent summer months on gannet colonies in Scottish waters (2).

For much of the year, black-browed albatrosses are pelagic, spending months on end at sea (2). To breed, they choose islands having steeply sloping coasts with tussock grass, although they will nest on cliffs and on level shores (5).

Albatross are known to be amongst some of the longest-lived birds and the black-browed can continue to breed up to an age of 35 years (4). Adults become mature at seven years old and, having found a mate, will pair for life (4).

The birds usually return to the same nesting site each September and a single egg is laid the following month. The incubation period lasts nearly two months and the chick stays on the nest until late March or early April (4).

Black-browed albatross feed on fish, squid, octopus and crustaceans but will also take floating carrion if they find it (5). Albatrosses are also known as ‘Mollymawks’ across much of their range (4).

The greatest threat to this species is thought to be the increase in by-catch as a result of long-line sea fishing in the southern oceans, especially along the Patagonian shelf off the east coast of Argentina and Uruguay (5). An estimated 60 percent of the total breeding population of around 530, 000 individuals breed on the Falkland Islands and another 20 percent on South Georgia (5). The Falklands population has declined by almost a third during the last two decades, most of this within a period of five years to 2001 (5). Much of this decline is blamed on an increase in long-line fishing in the surrounding seas, but the black-browed albatross is at risk from this practice throughout its range. It is one of the most frequent victims of both long-line and trawler fishing in the southern hemisphere (5).

As a result of fears over its declining population, the IUCN has upgraded the status of the black-browed albatross to ‘Endangered’ (1). On the basis of the losses at the birds’ chief breeding sites, it is calculated that it will have declined by around 65 percent during the next 65 years and by more than 50 percent throughout the rest of its range over the same period (5).

Monitoring of the birds’ breeding continues, and the fleets of those countries that regularly fish these waters are being encouraged to monitor bird by-catch and pursue safer fishing methods to minimise accidental netting of this species (5).

For further information on the black-browed albatross see:

Authenticated (15/11/05) by Dr Euan Dunn, Head of Marine Policy, RSPB.

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2007)
  2. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D. and Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  3. Global Register of Migratory Species (April, 2008)
  4. Falkland Islands Bird guide (a Regional member of the International Penguin Conservation Work Group) (April, 2004)
  5. Birdlife International (April, 2008)