Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans)

GenusDiomedea (1)
SizeLength: 1.1 m (2)
Weight8 - 11.5 kg (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU A4bd) on the IUCN Red List 2004 (1) and listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (3).

The impressive wandering albatross has the largest recorded wingspan of any bird, reaching up to a massive 3.5 metres across (2). Juveniles have chocolate-brown feathers and a white facemask but over time the white colouration expands, leaving only black at the edges of the wings and tail tip (4); they take up to nine years to reach adult plumage (5). The hooked bill is pink and the flesh-coloured legs end in webbed feet, reflecting the largely oceanic life-style of this bird (4). Unusually amongst birds, albatrosses have tubular nostrils on either side of their upper bill instead of the more common fused nostrils of other bird species (2).

Wandering albatrosses spend the majority of their time in flight, soaring over the southern oceans (5). They breed on a number of islands just north of the Antarctic Circle, notably: South Georgia Island (belonging to the UK), Prince Edward and Marion Islands (South Africa), Crozet and Kerguelen Islands (French Southern Territories) and Macquarie Island (Australia) (4).

Found over the open ocean, albatrosses travel vast distances (5). Breeding takes place on exposed ridges and hillocks, amongst open and patchy vegetation (4).

Wandering albatross pairs mate for life (5), these long-lived birds do not reach sexual maturity until 9 – 11 years of age (4). Nests are constructed from a mound of grasses and moss and a single egg is laid (2). Both parents take it in turns to incubate the egg (that hatches after two months) and then to feed the growing chick, which remains on the nest for around nine months (5).

Albatrosses use their enormous wingspan to glide effortlessly on updrafts of wind, they spend the majority of their life in flight and can travel enormous distances (2); one bird was recorded to have travelled 6000 km in 12 days (5). Albatrosses feed at the surface of the water, often roosting on the surface at night (5); they take fish and cephalopods (squid), and will often follow ships feeding on the fish waste they discharge (4).

Some populations of wandering albatross have shown recent worrying declines that have been attributed to longline fishing methods; these albatross are relatively aggressive in their dealings with fishing vessels and individuals may drown after attempting to seize bait from longline hooks, getting snared and pulled under. The population on Bird Island (South Georgia) has recently undergone a yearly 10% decrease in post-fledgling survival rate (4).

The majority of wandering albatross breeding sites are protected within reserves, and the island of Macquarie is a World Heritage Site. This species also receives protection under Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species and studies of a number of breeding populations have recently been undertaken. Adoption of mitigation measures in some areas, coupled with the relocation of other fisheries away from foraging grounds, are moves in the right direction but have yet to lead to signs of recovery in most populations. Widespread modification of harmful longline fishing practices and ongoing monitoring will be required (4) in order to safeguard the future of these elegant giants of the ocean air.

For more information on the wandering albatross see:

Authenticated (18/06/05) by Dr Euan Dunn, Head of Marine Policy, RSPB.

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2005)
  2. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  3. CMS (April, 2003)
  4. Stattersfield, A. (2000) Threatened Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona and BirdLife International, Cambridge.
  5. Australian Museum (April, 2003)