Shy albatross (Thalassarche cauta)

Synonyms: Diomedea cauta
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderProcellariiformes
FamilyDiomedeidae
GenusThalassarche (1)
SizeLength: 90 - 99 cm (2)
Wingspan: 220 - 256 cm (2)
Weight3.4 – 4.4 kg (2)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List 2006 (1), and is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (3).

This large seabird has a predominantly white body and a dark grey back. Young birds have a shadowy grey nape which fades to white with age. Its wings, which span over a massive two meters, are dark grey on top, and white with a black border underneath (4). Its brow is dark-grey or black, giving the appearance of a constant frown. The feet are a bluey-greybill, and adults have a grey bill with a yellow tip, whilst juveniles have a greyish bill with a black tip (2) (4).

The shy albatross breeds on only a three islands off Tasmania, Australia: Mewstone, Pedra Branca and Albatross Island. When not breeding it is most frequently found around Tasmania and southern Australia, but its range also extends to southern Africa. However, the exact marine distribution of the shy albatross can be difficult to determine due to its similarity in appearance to other albatross species (5).

This is an ocean species, but is less pelagic than other albatross species, and can often be found close inshore, even entering bays and harbours (2) (6). On land, they inhabit rocky, boulder-strewn areas with sparse vegetation (2).

This magnificent flier spends the majority of its time at sea, soaring on strong winds, or resting on the water’s surface (4). It feeds on fish, squid and crustaceans, plucked from the ocean, and will often gather in flocks behind fishing vessels to scavenge (6).

Breeding occurs between September and December. The nests are conical mounds, built from mud, bones, bird droppings, plant matter and rocks (4) (7). In these nests a pair of albatross, which mate for life, lay a single egg each year which is incubated for 68 to 75 days (2). Whilst nesting, the parents are very territorial and will defend their nest aggressively (4). Both parents take turns in feeding and rearing the chick for nearly five months before it fledges (4). The juvenile then spends at least three years at sea, before returning to land to find a life-mate, and begin breeding annually (6). Shy albatross can live for up to 40 years (8).

In the last century, populations of the shy albatross were drastically reduced due to their demand in the feather trade, but since then their numbers have slowly increased (2). Today the main threat facing this albatross, like other species, is longlining; a fishing method that involves a single line up to 130 kilometers long, with thousands of baited hooks attached to it, being pulled behind a boat. Shy albatrosses, scavenging in the ocean, try to eat the bait from the line as it is set behind the boat, but instead swallow the hooks and are dragged under and drowned (9). The ingestion of plastic, marine debris and pollution also pose a threat to the shy albatross whilst at sea (5).

At the breeding sites, few threats exist, as the only human disturbance arises from activities associated with the conservation management of the islands (5). There are no non-native species resident on Mewstone and Pedra Branca Island, and those on Albatross Island have no impact on the albatross population (5). However, an avian pox virus poses a potentially serious threat. This virus, probably transmitted by parasitic fleas and ticks, has been recorded in chicks on Albatross Island and kills an unknown number of birds (1) (5) (10). As albatross are long-lived birds with a low reproductive output they are exceptionally vulnerable to the effects of any threats, as they can not breed fast enough to replace the numbers being killed (9).

The shy albatross is listed as Vulnerable on the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), and there are currently a number of conservation actions under way, including a Threat Abatement Plan to minimise fishing by-catch. The aim of the plan is to reduce seabird by-catch within the Australian Fishing Zone, by modifying longline fishing operations. These modifications include using devices to scare birds away from the longlines, releasing the line from the boat underwater out of reach of the birds, and using weights so the lines sink more quickly (12).

All the breeding sites area legally protected (5), and monitoring of breeding populations and an investigation into the impact of the avian pox virus is already underway (11), but further steps to protect the ocean and coastline from pollution are required (4).

For further information on the conservation of albatross species worldwide, and how to get involved see:
http://www.savethealbatross.net/.

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

Authenticated (21/08/07) by Dr Rosemary Gales and Rachael Alderman, Wildlife and Marine Conservation Section, Department of Primary Industries and Water.

  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2007)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. CMS (April, 2007)
    http://www.cms.int/
  4. Department of Environment and Conservation, NSW (April, 2007)
    http://threatenedspecies.environment.nsw.gov.au/tsprofile/profile.aspx?id=10918
  5. Double, M.C., Gales, R., Alderman, R., Small, C. and Taylor, F. (2006) Shy Albatross. Agreement on the Conservation of Albatross and Petrels, Christchurch, New Zealand.
  6. Wildlife Scientific Advice, Natural Heritage Division. (2001) National Recovery Plan for Albatrosses and Giant-petrels. Environment Australia, Canberra.
  7. Birds Australia (April, 2007)
    http://www.birdsaustralia.com.au/cockatoo/shyalbatross.html
  8. Gales, R. (2007) Pers. comm.
  9. Save the Albatross (April, 2007)
    http://www.savethealbatross.net/
  10. Birdlife International, Campaigns (April, 2007)
    http://www.birdlife.org/action/campaigns/save_the_albatross/index.html
  11. Environment Australia Biodiversity Group. (1998) Threat Abatement Plan for the Incidental Catch, or By-Catch, of Seabirds during Oceanic Longline Fishing Operations. Environment Australia, Canberra. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/tap/longline/index.html#
  12. Garnett, S.T. and Crowley, G.M. (2000) The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2000. Environment Australia, Canberra. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/action/birds2000/index.html