The Laysan albatross, or Phoebastria immutabilis, is a seabird indigenous to the North Pacific region.
More than 99% of the global population of the Laysan albatross lives in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It takes its name from the island Laysan, home to one of its largest breeding colonies on Earth.
Though a large bird, it is comparatively smaller than other gull-like albatrosses. They were first banded in 1956 when at least five years of age, Wisdom the Laysan albatross is now more than 70 years old. This Laysan albatross is the oldest bird in the world whose age can be verified.
Albatross are rather big birds. They’re slightly smaller than a brown pelican, with a narrower and more athletic build. The Laysan albatross is among the smallest of all albatross species but still considered large compared to most seabirds.
Male and female Laysan albatross are of a similar size overall. They’re both typically between 31 and 32 inches long and have a wingspan of 76.5 to 80 inches.
Male Laysan albatross are stockier and can weigh up to nine pounds, while females typically never exceed eight pounds.
Laysan albatrosses have a large, white head. Their back is darkly colored, blending in with volcanic rock and the flat gray ocean.
Their stomach and chest are entirely snow-white, and the bottom of their wings is primarily white, with some dark markings. They also have a darker patch around each eye.
The underwing markings vary considerably by the individual bird, but the back of a Laysan albatross is particularly distinctive as it is almost all black.
Some say that the Laysan albatross resembles a gull in its coloring. The bill of a Laysan albatross has a dark tip, with a slight downturn. The rest of the bill is typically light pink.
Immature juveniles have a gray beak until they get a bit older. They do not have special feathers for breeding or attracting mates.
Laysan albatross build nests from whatever is on hand, so sometimes that might mean producing a nest from vegetation or digging a shallow impression in the sand for their eggs.
After fledging for about three years, juveniles don’t mate until they’re around seven or eight. During this period of about five years, the males will court mates.
The Laysan albatross courtship ritual includes up to 25 ritual movements performed as an elaborate dance.
Once bonded, a breeding pair often stays together for life. Interestingly, scientists have also observed bonding pairs of females who stick together.
These couples can successfully rear chicks when their eggs are fertilized by males and eventually hatch. Both parents of an egg take turns incubating it for more than two months, with the male sitting first.
After hatching, the parents dedicate themselves to hunting for meals on the sea, which they bring back to the nest and regurgitate, feeding the chicks.
The Laysan albatross is a seafarer. They nest in sixteen sites across the North Pacific, and the majority of their number live on the islands of Laysan and Midway. They may fly many thousands of miles per year in search of food.
They range even farther when away from their breeding grounds, perhaps explaining why there are also some small numbers of Laysan albatross on far-flung islands closer to Japan and Mexico.
The Laysan albatross lives communally in large colonies. These colonies are mainly on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Colonies live on Guadalupe Island, the four islands of the Revillagigedo Archipelago (all near Mexico), and the Bonin Islands (near Japan).
They are comfortable on rocky volcanic islands, but their nesting areas tend to be on the sandiest, grassiest expanses of land they can find.
They spend most of their lives flying over the open sea, except for when they’re incubating eggs.
The Laysan albatross is a hunting bird. But, since it’s quite large, it needs to be efficient in using its energy.
So it takes advantage of the strong wind currents over the sea, carrying itself aloft, with a minimum amount of wing flapping.
They then swoop low over the water in a glide and settle onto the surface, where they float in search of their favorite foods.
Laysan albatross aren’t picky when it comes to eating. They snack on crustaceans, like shrimp. If it fits in their mouth, they will probably try to eat it. Their preferred diet is primarily cephalopods.
So, their daily food intake usually includes squid. But, they also eat octopus, juvenile cuttlefish, flying fish eggs, and other small fish.
These birds are active during the day, but they seem to do most of their hunting nocturnally, maximizing the advantage of their strong night vision for spotting glimmering food near the water’s surface. They scoop their meal into their beak.
This hunting technique and attraction to shiny things in the water leads to albatross ingesting many non-food items.
However, they have a natural mechanism to cope with these indigestible foreign items, as well as the beaks, bones, and shells they take in with their food. After accumulating a quantity of these materials, the bird regurgitates them in a bolus.
A baby Laysan Albatross will eject their first bolus around the age of four months, and it will typically weigh nearly 100 grams.
The Laysan albatross has been vulnerable to human predation, the effects of human industry in its habitat, and attacks from predators.
The human desire for feathers saw the Laysan albatross hunted to near-extinction. It once had colonies on the Johnston Atoll and Wake Island, but they were wiped out. The overall population was reduced by hundreds of thousands.
Even after that practice was banned, the Laysan albatross remains vulnerable to the impacts of long-net fishing, tangling in plastic, and ingestion of floating plastics and garbage.
Changes in the climate may impact the Laysan albatross, as rising sea waters may limit their available nesting sites and affect the type of nesting materials they can find.
The Laysan albatross isn’t very susceptible to predation. But, feral cats do prey on nesting pairs and their eggs. Insects such as ants pose a threat to newly hatched birds.
The US Navy left behind dozens of buildings on the Midway Atoll. The lead paint used in the construction of these buildings has chipped and flaked away, and these chips become confused for food by the Laysan albatross on the island.
As a result, there is a high incidence of lead poisoning and resulting disease among this population.
The Laysan albatross currently has more than 500,000 breeding pairs throughout its range, on places like the Midway Atoll, Lasuan Island, French Frigate Shoals, and other islands.
Over approximately the last 100 years, their population dropped by nearly 50% overall. But, now, due to conservation efforts, the worldwide population has been mostly stable.
- A Laysan albatross named Wisdom is known to be at least 70 and is the oldest known bird alive on Earth.
- Some albatrosses might be even older, but their age can’t be easily verified.
- Laysan albatrosses have a very long courting period, perhaps due to the significant commitment to raising chicks together and their lifelong pairing.
- The Department of the Interior estimates that it would take approximately $23 million to clean up the toxic lead paint on the Bikini Atoll.
- The Bikini Atoll, contaminated by nuclear testing in the 1940s, may have affected these pelagic birds.