I don’t know why the word albatross is so funny, but it is. The animals themselves aren’t actually that amusing (I think, though I’ve never actually been to an albatross comedy show), though they are really cool. They can do some really amazing things, so I’m quite excited to blog about them today.

Albatrosses make up the family Diomedeidae. They are related to some other seabirds, including storm petrels and diving petrels. Albatrosses live all around the ocean, with most species ranging in the southern hemisphere, in a band from latitudes around Antarctica to Australia. There are four northern hemisphere species, that live exclusively in the Pacific ocean.

As you probably know, albatrosses are large birds, with the great albatrosses having the largest wingspan of any bird. These crazy birds can have wingspans over 11 feet. Most albatrosses are dark on the top with white undersides, though some species are completely white and others are dark all over. They have long, strong bills that end in hooks. The bills are made of horny plants, with two tubes on either side. The tubes give albatrosses the ability to measure exact airspeed, which is critical for the way these birds fly.

A shy albatross flying, showing its long, thin wings specially designed for gliding.
Image by Glen Fergus, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know much about physics, but the albatross certainly does. They use two types of flying, dynamic soaring and slope soaring. Dynamic soaring uses some kind of magic wherein the albatross rises into the wind and then descends along the wind gradient, thus gaining energy. Slope soaring involves birds using winds that rise up slopes or cliffs or high waves to gain altitude. If someone knows anything about aviation or anything, feel free to explain these better, because I don’t understand it.

With these two techniques, albatrosses can soar huge distances – sometimes over 1000km a day, without even flapping their wings. With such large amounts of time spent in flight, it’s assumed albatrosses have some way of sleeping during flight, but there’s no proof of this. The wing shape of albatrosses is built for gliding, with albatrosses having a glide ratio of 22:1 to 23:1 ( which means for every metre they drop, they move horizontally 22 metres). Flight is very inexpensive for albatrosses, with shoulder locks that allow the wings to be kept extended with no muscle usage. The most difficult part of flight for these birds is the take off and landings.

Albatrosses are long-lived, with the oldest known wild bird at 61 years of age. With such long lifespans, these birds can afford to invest some time into raising their young. They mate for life, with elaborate courtship dances preformed to form pairs. Young birds spend many breeding seasons at colonies, perfecting their dances. Once a mate is chosen, the pair complete the dance, which is then unique to each pair.

A grey-headed albatross chick, looking furry and cozy.
Image by Ben Tullis from Cambridge, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most species of albatrosses only lay one egg every few years, with an incubation period of 70 to 80 days, which is the longest incubation of any bird group. Chicks are brooded until three weeks of age, at which point they can self-thermoregulate. It takes a long time for albatross chicks to fledge – anywhere from 140 to 280 days. During this time, the parents share the burden of parenting, and bring the chicks a mix of squid, krill, fish and stomach oil. Once fledged, the chick is on its own, and is sexually mature at around five years of age, though they often don’t breed until ten years.

With all the amazing things they can do, I’m glad albatrosses are still around. They are threatened, by pollution, fishing, and by the introduction of mammals to their breeding colonies, but at least they are around for now. Hopefully it stays that way!

Cover photo by JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons