Albatrosses are the largest of the seabirds. They are most frequently seen in the oceans of the southern hemisphere south of about 30° latitude, and in the northern hemisphere in the north Pacific Ocean. They come ashore only to breed, usually on remote islands, and this lifestyle has meant that until recently little was known about them and their travels across the world.
Albatrosses belong to the Procellariiformes, or petrels, a distinctive group of marine birds readily identified by their nostrils being sheathed in prominent horny tubes arising near the base of the bill. Other features of petrels are the hooked beak tip, long legs, webbed feet for swimming, and a thick coat of feathers with insulation usually augmented by a layer of fat below the skin. Like other seabirds they swallow salt water when feeding, so they have a salt gland above each eye. This removes excess salt from their bloodstream. The salty solution then drains from the tubes along their bill.
Tears of the albatross
Māori noted the salty ‘tears’ rolling down the bill of the albatross. In legend, these tears expressed the bird’s longing for its oceanic home. Roimata toroa or albatross tears are the subject of various songs and sayings, and are depicted in woven tukutuku patterns on the walls of some meeting houses.
Size and appearance
Great size is the most obvious feature of albatrosses. The largest is the southern royal albatross, the male weighs 10.3 kilograms and has a wing span of up to 3.45 metres. The smallest is the yellow-nosed albatross, at about 2.1 kilograms and with a wing span of 1.9 metres. The long, narrow wings of albatrosses are highly developed for gliding, a mode of flight that enables them to cover vast distances with little energy expenditure. Most adults have a white body with dark upper wings and tail. However, adults of at least four species have mainly sooty or dark-brown plumage.
Number of species
For a long time it was widely accepted that there were 13 species of albatross. More recently, up to 24 species have been suggested, although only 20 or 22 of these are likely to be agreed upon. They fit into four groups or genera:
- the great albatrosses (genus Diomedea). This includes the wandering and royal albatross groups, totalling six or seven species.
- small albatrosses, also known as mollymawks (genus Thalassarche). They are the grey-headed, black-browed, Campbell, Buller’s, shy, Chatham, Salvin’s and yellow-nosed albatrosses. This makes a total of eight or nine species.
- two species of sooty albatrosses (genus Phoebetria). They are the sooty and light-mantled sooty albatrosses.
- the Phoebastria genus, which includes the Galapagos or waved albatross, two species of gooneys (Laysan and black-footed albatrosses), and the Steller’s or short-tailed albatross.
Where they roam
The great albatrosses, mollymawks, and sooty albatrosses occur in the oceans of the southern hemisphere, although individual mollymawks sometimes stray into the North Atlantic, where they may be reported ashore in the same locality year after year. The Galapagos albatross breeds only on the Galapagos Islands and travels over a small area of ocean between these islands and the coasts of Ecuador and Peru. Laysan and black-footed albatrosses are both birds of the north Pacific Ocean, with most breeding on the Hawaiian islands during the northern winter. The short-tailed (or Steller’s) albatross occurs in the north Pacific and breeds on islands off Japan.
New Zealand’s albatrosses
New Zealand has a particularly high diversity of albatrosses, with 11 of the world’s 22 species (and 13 out of 24 forms) of the great albatrosses, mollymawks and sooty albatrosses breeding there. Nine of these forms breed nowhere else. Several other species have been recorded as visitors or vagrants to the region.
Almost all New Zealand’s albatrosses breed on subantarctic islands and the Chatham group, but there is a small colony of just 20 pairs of Buller's albatrosses on the Three Kings Islands, north of the North Island. Most subantarctic islands support several species of albatross, for example, Campbell Island has six.
The only mainland breeding colony is new. In 1914, northern royal albatrosses were noticed visiting Taiaroa Head on Otago Peninsula. The first egg was laid in 1920, but disturbance from predators and people meant that not until 1938 did a chick survive to fledge. This success was thanks to ornithologist Lance Richdale’s dedicated protection and campaigns. In 2005-06 there were 17 nests and more than 65 birds, and predator protection and visitor facilities now give the birds and the public a good experience. This is one of most accessible albatross colonies in the world for people to visit.
A good old bird
Grandma, a northern royal albatross, raised chicks at Taiaroa Head for 50 years and reached the record age of at least 61.
Food for Māori
Toroa (albatross) eggs and chicks were an important food for Moriori living on the Chatham Islands. To reach colonies on wave-hammered rocky islets, they made wash-through rafts from bundles of lightweight reeds and inflated kelp bladders.
On the mainland, albatross bones found in middens indicate that Māori ate the birds. The absence of chick bones indicates there were no mainland colonies at that time. Adult birds were caught while feeding at sea – then, as now, they were rarely found ashore on the mainland.
To Māori, albatrosses represented beauty and power. Wearing albatross feathers or bone pendants conferred these qualities on the wearer, usually a person of rank. Garlands of feathers sometimes adorned the prow of waka taua (war canoes). Albatrosses are depicted in cave drawings and in meeting houses.