Diomedea epomophoraroyal albatross

Geographic Range

The range of Diomedea epomophora extends throughout the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. Two subspecies of D. epomophora are recognized today. Northern royal albatrosses (D. e. sanfordi) commonly nest on Campbell Island and the Auckland Islands. Southern royal albatrosses (D.e. epomophora) nest almost exclusively on the Chatham Islands, located hundreds of miles east of New Zealand. After breeding, the species may circumnavigate the Southern Ocean, though it is most commonly sighted in New Zealand and South American waters. It has never been recorded north of the Equator. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)

Habitat

Nearly 80 percent of a royal albatross' life is spent directly exposed to the cold, treacherous, open oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. Remote tropical islands are sought out for nesting. They typically nest on slopes with tussock grass providing some shelter, though exposed sites are also common as they ease the often difficult tasks of take-off and landing. ("Species Factsheet", 2000; del Hoyo, et al., 1992)

Physical Description

Considered the largest seabird and amongst the largest of all birds capable of flight, D. epomophora is most recognizable by its remarkably long, slender, knife-like wings. It can have a wingspan of over ten feet. It weighs 9000 g on average and is 107 to 122 cm long. There are two subspecies of D. epomophora, however, differences in appearance are minimal. Both are predominantly white, with faint pinkish bills. Northern royal albatross (D. e. sanfordi) are considerably smaller and have entirely black upper wings. Southern royal albatross (D. e. epomophora) have predominantly white wings with black markings near the wing tips. There is little sexual dimorphism within the species, and males tend to be only slightly larger than females. ("The Royal Albatross", 2003; del Hoyo, et al., 1992; Grunewald, 2004; Hoffman, 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Average mass
    9000 g
    317.18 oz
  • Range length
    107 to 122 cm
    42.13 to 48.03 in
  • Range wingspan
    305 to 351 cm
    120.08 to 138.19 in
  • Average wingspan
    325 cm
    127.95 in

Reproduction

Royal albatross pair for life. 'Divorce' is rare and typically only occurs after several failed breeding attempts, under normal conditions only death can split a pair. Royal albatross have extensive and varied courtship displays that include actions like 'Bill-circling', 'Sky-pointing', 'Flank-touching' with the bill, and full spreading of the wings. In many cases, these rituals are done and a pair is formed in the season prior to breeding. An elaborate courtship is unnecessary for birds that have bred together in the previous year. Previously mated pairs usually use the same nest-site as the year before. Typically, the male arrives a few days before the female. A few greeting ceremonies are performed upon the arrival of the female, and shortly thereafter, they breed. Breeding is biennial (occurs every two years), due in part to the long incubation period. As a result, there is no replacement egg laying, forcing a pair to wait until the following season to re-nest if their egg is lost. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)

Royal albatross reproduce once biennially, breeding starts in October. Without fail, only one egg is laid. Eggs weigh between 205 to 487 g, about 5 to 11 percent of the body weight of the mother. Incubation lasts 79 days. Chicks have white down and their coloration is similar to that of adults. Chicks fledge after about 240 days, at this point, the chick simply flies off on its own. Sexual maturity is reached in 9 to 11 years. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)

  • Breeding interval
    Biennial
  • Breeding season
    Breeding begins in October
  • Average eggs per season
    1
  • Average time to hatching
    79 days
  • Average fledging age
    240 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    9 to 11 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    9 to 11 years

Having arrived to the nest-site first, the male defends the territory against other males and rebuilds or starts building a new nest while he waits for his partner. When the female arrives a few days later, the birds briefly display then copulate. Immediately afterwards, both return to sea where they feed and begin to build up a reserve of food. Both birds return to the nest shortly before the egg is laid. The female lays the egg then immediately retreats to the sea. The male is left to incubate the egg until the female returns, sometimes leaving the male without food or water for 2 to 3 weeks. When the female returns to the nest, the male leaves to find food and regain his strength. This pattern continues until the egg hatches and the chick no longer needs to be brooded, this usually takes six weeks. At this point, both parents leave to find food but return daily to feed their chick a meal of partly digested fish, squid, and stomach oil that adults produce during the ordinary digestion of their food. The oil is rich in fats and helps provide the nutrients necessary for the chick to grow despite long spans without food. The growing chick wanders around the nest-site between visits, but must return to the nest to be fed. After a few brief failures, the chick simply flies away to start life on its own. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • altricial
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Royal albatross are remarkably long-lived when considering that the vast majority of their lives are spent over the perilous southern oceans. The adult mortality rate is 3 percent per year. In the wild, a royal albatross was known to have lived to over 58 years. It is possible that some birds may reach an age of 80 years. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)

Behavior

At sea, royal albatross are generally solitary. Large congregations form when food is present, particularly around fishing boats. Also, hundreds of older immatures and those without a mate may gather on land in loafing areas. They may be both diurnal and nocturnal. Royal albatross are nomadic and it is estimated that they travel more than 100,000 miles each year, reaching speeds over 70 miles per hour. Because they are unable to sustain flapping flight, royal albatross cannot fly in calm weather. When winds drop, royal albatross may be forced to float in the oceans. Instead of flapping their wings, royal albatross glide, using the updrafts of air which are deflected upwards by the waves of the ocean. As majestic as royal albatross are in the sky, their methods for take-off and landing are anything but graceful. Royal albatross must take a long running start with their wings spread to take off. An element of danger exists in landing, particularly on solid ground. Without continued flapping, braking can be difficult. Often times, this results in crash landings, where injuries are not uncommon. ("The Royal Albatross", 2003; del Hoyo, et al., 1992; Grzimek, 1972; Hoffman, 2002)

Home Range

We do not have information on home range for this species at this time.

Communication and Perception

Elaborate displays are done by males and females to form pair-bonds. Actions like 'Bill-circling', 'Sky-pointing', 'Flank-touching' with the bill and the spreading of the wings are involved in courtship. These displays are typically accompanied by a variety of calls. This form of communal dancing usually takes place on land but on occasion it can occur at sea. Royal albatross are usually silent at sea but can become rather vocal when competing for food, especially around fish boats. Croaking, shrieking, and gargling sounds are the most common sounds made during competition for food. As a threat to intruders, a highly characteristic rattling sound can be produced by clappering the bill quickly and repeatedly. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)

Food Habits

Royal albatross are carnivorous. They eat mainly cephalopods (Moroteuthis ingens, Kondakovia longimana, Hisioteuthis atlantica), fish (Macruronus novaezelandiae), and some crustaceans. Due to their lack of maneuverability, an albatross rarely picks up prey in flight. Instead, they sit on the water and use a method known as surface-seizing. Occasionally, they make shallow plunges. Most of their hunting, particularly for squid, is done at night. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans

Predation

Due in part to their large size and solitary lifestyle, both in the air and on secluded islands, royal albatross have no known predators. Humans have been a threat in the past, but recent, stricter penalties for killing royal albatross have helped populations remain stable. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)

Ecosystem Roles

Because of their generally solitary lifestyle and the wide expanse of territory they cover, royal albatross have little impact on their surroundings. Royal albatross are predators located at the top of the food chain. Due to the small population size of royal albatross, populations of their prey are left relatively unaffected. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992; Grzimek, 1972)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Their oceanic habits and isolated Southern Hemisphere range make royal albatross virtually inaccessible to humans. Because of their mastery of flight, royal albatross have gained worldwide admiration and respect and are sought out by birdwatchers. As a result, killing one for any reason is considered a serious offense. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Because of their inclination to prey on the bait used by trawlers and other fishing boats, many royal albatross were killed in fishing lines and nets. Today, new, more costly methods have been developed and implemented to prevent harm to the birds. (del Hoyo, et al., 1992)

Conservation Status

Populations declined rapidly in the past due to less stringent requirements on fishing practices. Recent bans in New Zealand waters have required trawlers to replace outdated equipment and implement new, safer methods. Populations have stabilized as a result of these measures. Today, populations are estimated to be 10,000 to 20,000 pairs. Royal albatross are listed as 'Vulnerable' by the IUCN. ("Species Factsheet", 2000; del Hoyo, et al., 1992; IUCN, 2003)

Contributors

Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Jason LaGosh (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

molluscivore

eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

nomadic

generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pelagic

An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).

piscivore

an animal that mainly eats fish

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

BirdLife International. 2000. "Species Factsheet" (On-line ). Accessed 03/13/03 at http://www.birdlife.org.uk/species/threatened_species.cfm?SpcRecID=3954.

Australian Stamp & Coin Coy Pty. Ltd. 2003. "The Royal Albatross" (On-line). Accessed April 16, 2004 at http://www.australianstamp.com/Coin-web/feature/nature/royalalb.htm.

Grunewald, S. 2004. "Royal Albatross" (On-line). 70 South. Accessed April 16, 2004 at http://www.70south.com/resources/animals/birds/royalalbatross.

Grzimek, B. 1972. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Hoffman, E. 2002. A Royal Air Force: With Beauty and Grace, the World's Largest Seabird Takes Command of the Sky. Animals, 135 (1): 16-18, 26.

IUCN, 2003. "2003 IUCN Red List of Endangered Species" (On-line). Accessed April 19, 2004 at http://www.redlist.org/.

del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, J. Sargatal. 1992. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.