Southern royal albatross (Diomedea epomophora)

Synonyms: Diomedea epomophora epomophora
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderProcellariiformes
FamilyDiomedeidae
GenusDiomedea (1)
SizeSize: 115 cm (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2006 (1), and listed on Appendix II of CMS (3) and Annex 1 of ACAP (4).

With a wing-span of over three metres, this enormous black and white albatross is amongst the largest birds in the world and thoroughly deserving of its majestic name (2) (5). Individuals are mostly white, with black tips to the wings and tail, and have a faintly pinkish bill with black edging on the upper beak (5). The southern royal albatross can be distinguished from the northern royal albatross (Diomedea sanfordi), by its slightly larger size and more extensive white on its upper wing (2) (6).

Breeding occurs on Adams, Enderby and Auckland Islands (Auckland Islands group), Campbell Island, and on Taiaroa Head (Otago Peninsula, South Island), New Zealand (2). This otherwise pelagic species is most commonly recorded in New Zealand and South American waters in the non-breeding season, but may circumnavigate all the way around the Southern Ocean (2) (5).

The southern royal albatross spends most of its time soaring over the open oceans, and only comes to land to breed (5). Nesting typically occurs on tussock grassland slopes, ridges and plateaus (2).

The southern royal albatross usually pairs for life, with new pairs performing elaborate courtship displays that include actions like ‘bill-circling’, ‘sky-pointing’, ‘flank-touching’ with the bill, and full spreading of the wings, typically accompanied by a variety of calls (6). Breeding occurs every two years, if successful, with breeding birds returning to their nesting grounds from late October to mid-November (6) (7) (8). Previously mated pairs usually use the same nest site from season to season (6). The male arrives at the nest-site a few days before the female to defend the territory from other males and rebuild or start building a new nest (6). One egg is laid in November to December and incubated by both parents for 79 days (6) (7) (8). Chicks hatch in February to March and usually fledge eight months later from October to December (8). Juveniles do not return to their natal colony until four to eight years of age, but these long-lived birds do not begin breeding until nine to eleven years (6) (7).

The southern royal albatross feeds mainly on surface shoaling fish and squid, supplemented by crustaceans and carrion, which are mostly hunted at night (2) (6) (7).

Historically, humans and mammals introduced to previously predator-free islands have caused massive declines in all southern royal albatross populations. Pigs and cats still pose a threat on Auckland Island, where they continue to predate on eggs and chicks. On Campbell and Enderby, Dracophyllum scrub is spreading, possibly due to climatic warming, and may reduce breeding habitat (2). The vast majority of the breeding population now remains on Campbell Island, and although considered stable there, such heavy reliance on this single island leaves the species in a particularly vulnerable position. Albatrosses are notoriously susceptible to becoming entangled in fishing equipment whilst feeding on baited hooks or catch, and this species is no exception (9). The southern royal albatross is frequently caught by Japanese longliners in the high seas and smaller numbers are killed by fisheries in waters off New Zealand, south-western Australia and Tasmania (2).

The southern royal albatross is listed on Annex 1 of the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), a multilateral agreement which seeks to conserve albatrosses and petrels by coordinating international activity to mitigate known threats to these magnificent seabirds (4), and is also listed on Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), which aims to conserve migratory species throughout their range (3). Cattle, sheep and rats have been removed from Campbell Island, and rabbits and mice have been eradicated from Enderby (2). All the islands on which this species breeds are nature reserves and, in 1998, were declared a World Heritage Site (2). Recent legislation in New Zealand has required trawlers to replace outdated equipment and implement new, safer methods that are less likely to endanger albatrosses and other sea birds (6). However, longline fisheries continue to threaten albatross species around the globe, a problem that urgently needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, as long as the population on Campbell Island remains protected and free from potential predators, the southern royal albatross should continue to soar the Southern Ocean skies for many generations to come.

For more information on the southern royal albatross see:

Authenticated (28/08/2007) by Pierre Jouventin, National Centre of Scientific Research, Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, Montpellier, France.

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2006)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. BirdLife International (October, 2006)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=3954&m=0
  3. Convention on Migratory Species (August, 2007)
    http://www.cms.int
  4. Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (August, 2007)
    http://www.acap.aq/
  5. South Seas Companion (October, 2006)
    http://southseas.nla.gov.au/biogs/P000388b.htm
  6. Animal Diversity Web (October, 2006)
    http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Diomedea_epomophora.html
  7. 70South (October, 2006)
    http://www.70south.com/resources/antarctic-animals/antarctic-birds/royalalbatross
  8. Australian Government Department of Environment and Heritage. (2001) Recovery Plan for Albatrosses and Giant-petrels. Wildlife Scientific Advice, Natural Heritage Division, Environment Australia, Australia. Available at:
    http://www.deh.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/recovery/albatross/index.html
  9. Zoological Museum of the University of Amsterdam (October, 2006)
    http://ip30.eti.uva.nl/zma3d/detail.php?id=19&sort=taxon&type=family