Waved albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)

Synonyms: Diomedea irrorata
GenusPhoebastria (1)
SizeLength: 85 – 93 cm (2)
Wingspan: 230 – 240 cm (2)
Weight3 – 4 kg (3)

Classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1), and is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (4)

The waved albatross is unique in being the largest bird in the Galapagos Islands, and the only albatross species found entirely within the tropics (3). It has a white head, with a tinge of creamy-yellow on its crown and neck. The body plumage is mostly a chestnut-brown, with a whitish breast and underwing. Its bill is a dull yellow, and its feet are bluish (5). Juveniles differ slightly from adults by having a whiter head and a duller bill (2).

The waved albatross breeds on Española Island in the Galapagos Islands, and possibly also on Isla de la Plata, off the coast of Ecuador (1). It is seen at sea throughout this region (3).

This is an open ocean species that comes to land to breed, at which time it can be found on cliffs, rocky shores and shrubland (3).

This large seabird feeds on fish and squid from the surface of the ocean, and also on crustaceans (2). It is thought to often feed during the night, when squid swim closer to the surface, making for an easier meal. The waved albatross has also been seen stealing food from other birds, such as boobies; a feeding strategy that is called kleptoparasitism (2).

Waved albatross mate for life; a relationship that starts with an elaborate courtship ritual. This routine is a precise sequence of moves, which includes rapidly circling and bowing their bills, clacking their beaks together and raising their bills skyward whilst letting out a “whoo-ooo” call (3). A pair of albatross will lay one egg in a depression on bare ground between April and June, where it is incubated for almost two months (2) (3). The newly hatched chicks have blackish-brown down, and after two weeks they are left in ‘nursery groups’ whilst the parents go fishing and return to feed them pre-digested oily fish liquid (3). About 167 days after hatching they are developed enough to fly (2), and around January the young will leave the colony and spend an astonishing six years at sea, feeding and scavenging. After this time, they will return to the island to find a mate and breed (3). These large birds can live for up to 30 years (6).

Like other albatross species, the greatest threat to the waved albatross is human fishing activities. Many are unintentionally drowned by longline fishing boats; a fishing method that involves a single line up to 130 kilometres long, with thousands of baited hooks attached to it, being pulled behind a boat. Waved 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 (7). Currently, waved albatross are only affected by longlining when feeding off the coast of Peru, as industrial longline fishing is prohibited in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. However, there is pressure from the fishing industry to allow longlining within the reserve, which would have an extremely damaging impact on the population of waved albatross (8).

Waved albatross are also threatened by water pollution, such as oil slicks; the ingestion of contaminants, and occasional intentional harvesting for human consumption (3) (9). Additionally, because it breeds on only one, or possibly two, islands, this makes it very vulnerable to any chance events (1). As albatross are long-lived birds, they are exceptionally vulnerable to the effects of any threats, as they can not breed fast enough to replace the numbers being killed (6).

Española is part of the Galápagos National Park and Marine Reserve, and World Heritage Site, which means that this breeding site of the waved albatross is well protected. There are no introduced species on the island, and tourism is well regulated. The other potential breeding site, the Isla de la Plata, is part of Machalilla National Park but does not have the same level of protection as Española, and therefore the albatross could benefit from increased protection of this island (5).

A number of organisations are working together to encourage and train fisherman to use methods that reduce the threat of longlines to albatross. These methods 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 (6). It is hoped that longlining remains prohibited within the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

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  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2007)
  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. Charles Darwin Foundation (April, 2007)
  4. CMS (April, 2007)
  5. Birdlife International (April, 2007)
  6. Save the Albatross (April, 2007)
  7. Birdlife International, Campaigns (April, 2007)
  8. Birdlife International, News (April, 2007)
  9. Awkerman, J.A., Huyvaert, K.P., Mangel, J., Shigueto, J.A. and Anderson, D.J. (2006) Incidental and intentional catch threatens Galapagos waved albatross. Biological Conservation, 133: 483 - 489.