Chatham albatross (Thalassarche eremita)

Also known as: Chatham Island albatross, Chatham mollymawk
Synonyms: Diomedea cauta, Diomedea eremite, Thalassarche cauta eremita
GenusThalassarche (1)

The Chatham albatross is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

One of the least known of the world’s albatrosses (2), this oceanic bird breeds only on a tiny rocky islet in the Pacific Ocean. The Chatham albatross (Thalassarche eremita) has grey-black plumage on the back, tail and upper sides of the wings, while the rump and underparts are white. The crown, face and throat are dark grey, contrasting with the sharp bill, which is bright yellow with a dark spot at the tip of the lower mandible. Juveniles have more grey plumage and a blue-grey bill, with black tips to both mandibles (3).

Breeds solely on a small, precipitous rock in the Chatham Islands called ‘The Pyramid’, to the east of New Zealand (2). When not breeding, the Chatham albatross migrates across the South Pacific and can be found off the coast of Peru and Chile (4).

The Chatham albatross nests on rocky ledges and steep slopes (5). They forage in oceans over the continental slope, particularly in areas of upwelling (4).

Due to the difficult access of the Pyramid islet, and the frequently challenging sea and weather conditions surrounding it, the Chatham albatross remains one of the least known of the world’s albatross species (2) (5). It is thought to lay a single egg every year, in August or September, and incubate it for 66 to 72 days. The egg hatches between October and December, and the chick is thought to fledge between February and April (2) (6). Incubation of the egg and feeding of the chick is carried out by both parents, in five day stints (5).

From late July to early April, non-breeders followed by successful breeders migrate across the South Pacific to Chile and Peru. Tracking of the albatross has shown that they complete this immense journey in 11 to 30 days (4). They then return to the Chatham Islands via a more northerly route in July and August (2). Out over the ocean, the Chatham albatross feeds on a diet of squid, fish and krill (7). Returning back to ‘The Pyramid’, the albatrosses form dense colonies on the grassy and rocky slopes, ready to breed again (6). Young chicks have been recorded first returning to the breeding colony at four years of age and first breeding at the age of seven (7).

Having only a single, tiny breeding site makes the Chatham albatross incredibly vulnerable to any threats; a single catastrophic event could devastate the entire population. During the 1980s, severe storms and changed climatic conditions resulted in the loss of soil and vegetation from ‘The Pyramid’ (7). The lack of soil and vegetation with which to build nests resulted in poorer nests that are prone to collapse in dry periods (5) (7). There is a history of Moriori and other Chatham Island settlers harvesting albatross fledglings. Annual harvesting may still occur, and though only small numbers are taken (7), this could still have an effect on the population (3). At sea, the Chatham albatross is killed by longline fishing vessels off the coast off Chile, Peru and New Zealand (7).

The Chatham albatross is listed on Annex I of The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). ACAP is a multilateral agreement which seeks to conserve albatrosses and petrels by coordinating international activity to lessen known threats to these species (8). The Chatham albatross’s breeding site, ‘The Pyramid’, is privately owned and special permission for landing must be obtained from the owners (5). This, and the island’s difficult access, may offer the albatross some protection, but legal protection of the site is still urgently required (7). Developing and implementing techniques to reduce fisheries by-catch, particularly by longliners (3), would benefit the Chatham albatross and the many other albatrosses that die needlessly on the end of fishing hooks.

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  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2011)
  2. Robertson, C.J.R., Bell, D. and Nicholls, D.G. (2000) The Chatham albatross (Thalassarche eremite): at home and abroad. Notornis, 47(3): 174 - .
  3. BirdLife International (February, 2008)
  4. Science Working Group. (2007) Information describing the associated and dependent species Chatham albatross Thalassarche eremite relating to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation. Third SWG Meeting, South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation. Available at:
  5. Robertson, C.J.R., Bell, D. and Scofield, P. (2003) Population Assessment of the Chatham Mollymawk at The Pyramid, December 2001. Department of Conservation, Wellington, New Zealand.
  6. Wildlife Scientific Advice, Natural Heritage Division. (2001) National Recovery Plan for Albatrosses and Giant-petrels. Environment Australia, Canberra.
  7. Double, M.C., Gales, R., Beck, N., Small, C. and Taylor, F. (2006) Chatham Albatross. Agreement on the Conservation of Albatross and Petrels, Christchurch, New Zealand.
  8. ACAP (February, 2008)