Laysan Albatross
Laysan Albatross

Common name: Laysan Albatross
Scientific name: Phoebastria immutabilis
Length: 81 cm, wingspan of 2 m
Weight: 3 kg (6.5 lb) for males and 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) for females
Population: 1.2 million
Distribution: throughout the North Pacific, nests primarily in the Hawaiian Islands, where there are 16 nesting sites
Issue: lead poisoning and plastic pollution, invasive species
IUCN Red List status: near threatened

The Laysan Albatross is a seabird that nests in the Hawaiian Islands. It has a white head and breast, with dark brown wings and tail, similar to the colouration of gulls.

It feeds by snatching food from the water’s surface, and by diving for squid, fish, and crustaceans.

After reaching sexual maturity, at about eight or nine years, the Laysan Albatross leaves the open ocean for land. There, after an elaborate courtship display, the male finds a mate with which it remains for life, generally about 40 years.

Over their long lives, pairs of Laysan Albatross share their time between feeding areas and breeding areas. Typically, at the end of the mating season (July), they migrate toward the northern Japanese islands, the Aleutians, and the coast of Alaska, spending most of their time feeding at sea. At the start of the breeding season, in late October, they return to land to make a nest and raise a single chick.

The nest is built in the open, surrounded by vegetation. The female lays one egg per year, which the parents take turns brooding for nine weeks. Once the chick has hatched, the parents also take turns going out to sea to find food, occasionally leaving for several days at a time. Upon their return, the partially digested food and oil are regurgitated to feed the chick.

The vast majority (99.9 percent) of Laysan Albatrosses nest in the Hawaiian Islands, although there are small colonies off the coast of Mexico and Japan.

The Laysan Albatross has faced numerous threats over the past 100 years. At the turn of the 20th century, they were hunted extensively for their feathers and down. Populations in the Wake and Johnston atolls were wiped out. In 1909, the Northwestern Hawaiian islands were declared a seabird sanctuary, in part to protect albatrosses.

However, their trials have not ended. Fishing lines remain a threat, since albatrosses frequently become entangled and choke on them. In some colonies, feral cats and invasive bigheaded ants (Pheidole megacephala) are an added predation pressure on chicks.

On Midway Atoll, lead poisoning (or avian saturnism) caused by paint flaking off 95 abandoned military buildings kills about 10,000 chicks every year, about five percent of all chicks that hatch. These sites must be thoroughly cleaned up, or this tragedy will continue.

Finally, another threat that is increasing in importance over time is plastic pollution. Adult albatrosses mistake floating plastic waste for food, and the stomachs of thousands of chicks are therefore filled with plastic (buttons, toy parts, light sticks, bits of dishwashing gloves, lighters, golf tees, Styrofoam, fishing lines, etc.), which they cannot digest. This plastic makes the birds heavier, blocks their gullets, slows their growth, and inhibits their appetite, leading eventually to starvation and death.

Did you know?
The Laysan Albatross holds the longevity record for wild birds. One 60-year-old female Laysan Albatross, named Wisdom, laid an egg in 2011 and was seen rearing a chick.

REFERENCES: Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Encyclopedia of Life.

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