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Nature’s flawless gliding machine

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Posted: Friday, March 29, 2013 10:00 am

Albatross are the greatest long distance travelers on Earth. These globetrotters are the bloodhounds of the sea, miraculously making a modest living over vast open oceans.

There are 24 species of albatross; they spend 95 percent of their time at sea. They come ashore on 22 remote islands in the Southern Hemisphere and six island groups along the Hawaiian archipelago to breed.

Most birds have evolved with wings for powerful flight, but albatross are constructed more to float in the air rather than fly. Their bones are hollow and air sacs surround each organ.

Long narrow wings make the albatross extreme-range mileage machines. The wingspan of the Royal albatross, from tip to tip, is 10 and-a-half feet – the largest of all species. Nature's design is superb in the Wandering albatross, whose 18 to 1 wingspan to width is equal to teh best human-made gliders.

These beauties were made for wind. They work with solar-powered wind and gravity in order to travel to the limit of any sea. The flight of an albatross surpasses all other birds.

For instance, albatross' lift-to-drag ratio – lifting force to air resistance – measures 40 to 1, more than triple that of eagles.

They also have staying power. Albatross are pillars of longevity, with some living over 80 years. Around the age of 13, an albatross seeks a lifelong mate. Their courtship ritual is the most intricate of any nonhuman. Initial wooing takes months or years.

After copulation the pair take to the sea for a two-and-a-half week ‘honeymoon.’ When they come ashore the female lays one large egg weighing about a pound, or about 10 percent of her body weight.

The male takes the first incubation shift while the female forages the sea to replenish the energy costs of building the egg.

It takes each mate about five or six shifts (65 days) incubating while the other mate forages the sea before the chick hatches.

It then takes a Herculean effort by both parents over an additional four months to feed and grow the chick to its fledgling weight of about 23 pounds.

Each parent forages a distance equivalent to circumnavigating the equator once – 25,000 miles – to feed the chick until it reaches fledgling weight.

Their foraging journeys take them far and wide. Albatrosses inhabit every ocean except the North Atlantic.

How they forage – primarily for squid – is unique among fowl, as it relates to smell, and phytoplankton.

Most birds have a poor sense of smell. Albatross, meanwhile, have a tube on either side of their beak that enables them a powerful sense of smell.

The windiest parts of the Earth lie between 30 and 55 degrees. Albatrosses fly continuously, waiting for the earthy smell of phytoplankton to waft into their beaks. (While flying during the night, half their brain sleeps while the other half is awake.) Phytoplankton feed zooplankton, which in turn feeding little fish, and squid feed on little fish. The squid then die en masse after breeding.

Albatross eat squid, fish and crustaceans. It takes about 398 million pounds of prey to feed the albatross of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

There are about 10 million individual albatross on our planet. Drift nets and over-fishing have had a horrendous impact on albatross.

Climate change is also having a deleterious impact on albatross populations. Sea ice is an integral part of how plankton makes its living.

Millions of miles of seasonal sea ice are missing. Without plankton, albatross cannot breed. Breeding numbers have plummeted in both hemispheres.

Albatross symbolize good luck. Any critter that can live in the wild past 60 years and fly over 4 million miles is indeed worthy of admiration and protection.

Earth Dr. Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist and author of "The Insatiable Bark Beetle."

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1 comment:

  • pulp posted at 1:08 pm on Mon, Apr 1, 2013.

    pulp Posts: 1

    Errr. I'm confused on many of the numbers you've published. I've not seen anything about 80-year old albatrosses. I believe the oldest known bird to date is Wisdom the Laysan Albatross at Midway Atoll. She's confirmed to be at least 62 and still reproducing.

    The Wandering Albatross, not the Royal Albatross, carries the title for longest wingspan of not only albatrosses, but birds in general.

    And, while some albatross species may have chicks that weight 23 pounds, the photo of the Laysan Albatross and the lack of specificity brings confusion. The Laysan Albatross never weighs 23 pounds, with adults tilting the scales at 5 to 9 pound, with chicks reaching slightly more than that before first flight.

    As conservationists, we must use caution when explaining the effects of global warming or we risk coming across as environmental nuts. If we can't get concrete, unchanging measurements correct, how do we prove the changes that are happening over years, decades, and longer with any confidence from critics?