Monday, October 20, 2008

The Wandering Albatross

In a museum recently, I saw what appeared to be a seagull the size of a turkey. Had the taxidermist supersized this specimen? No, it was a real bird—and, as I learned, an extraordinary and endangered bird: the Wandering Albatross.

From BirdLife, here are some albatross facts:

  • Wandering and royal (‘great’) albatrosses have the largest wingspans of any bird in the world, reaching up to 3.5m (11ft).
  • Albatrosses are miracles of nature’s engineering – their long, narrow wings enable them to glide for thousands of miles on wind currents without flapping their wings.
  • Simply by angling their wings and their flight path, albatrosses can use the variation in air speed and direction near the waves to soar over the oceans. This phenomenon is called dynamic soaring.
  • A grey-headed albatross from South Georgia has been recorded circumnavigating the globe in a mere 46 days!

A scientist who instrumented Wandering Albatrosses found:

[T]he soaring flight of the albatross is among the most energy-efficient forms of avian travel known. The heart-rate monitors showed that albatrosses’ heart rates during flight are only 10 to 20 percent higher than they are when the birds are at rest. In contrast, the heart rates of other birds in typical flapping flight can rise to as much as 200 percent higher than the baseline level....

During a single foraging trip, which typically lasted between ten and fifteen days, the birds flew more than 1,800 miles from their nests and covered as much as 9,300 miles.

Out of 22 albatross species, 19 are endangered or on the way to that status. Technically, the Wandering Albatross is “vulnerable,” with decreasing numbers. Current estimates put the number of Wandering Albatross breeding pairs at less than 10,000 worldwide.

A major cause is longlining, a practice in which fishing boats drag lines that are miles long. Each line has thousands of hooks baited with squid and fish. While the lines are being set, albatrosses go for the bait, get tangled in the lines, and are pulled under. An estimated 100,000 albatrosses of all types die this way per year.

Longlining affects other species too, but albatrosses are hit hard because they breed slowly, one egg at a time. Thus, as a species, they do not have the reproductive capacity to counteract their losses from longlining and other human activities.

Solutions to these problems exist. For example, longlines can be modified with materials that scare away birds, or they can be set at night. However, many countries have longlining fishermen, and there is little incentive to absorb the cost of doing the right thing if your competitor from another country isn’t.

To help address this issue, an international agreement exists: the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). Last week, President Bush recommended that the U.S. Senate ratify ACAP and create laws that implement the agreement.

Outside governmental action, BirdLife has a campaign to raise awareness of these issues, promote countries’ participation in ACAP, and educate fishermen about the albatross problems and solutions. With such efforts, albatrosses have a chance to continue existing both in and outside museums.

[The image is from Wikipedia’s Wandering Albatross page.]

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