Also known as Phoebastria immutabilis, the Laysan albatross is a large seabird. This gull-like bird soars magnificently over the Pacific Ocean near its Hawaiian Islands home.
Although they use tropical Pacific islands to nest, it’s common for them to expand out to California, the Aleutian Islands, or Japan when feeding. Although over one million Laysan Albatrosses exist, they face threats such as predation by cats, dogs, and rats. They also must navigate other threats like ocean trash and longline fishing.
Characteristics & Appearance
Weight & Length
The average length of a Laysan Albatross is 32 inches. Females typically weigh between four and 8 pounds and males weigh somewhere between five and nine pounds. Their wingspan comes in at approximately 80 inches long.
They use their wings to travel across large distances. Similar to an airplane, they keep their wings extended and gain lift as the windy ocean air rushes around them.
Physical Characteristics & Color
A white-headed bird, the upper wings on a Laysan Albatross are a dark gray-brown. They have spotted dark areas throughout their mostly white underwings. These seabirds offer an eye area that’s darker in color. You’ll notice a dark tail, white rump, and dark back. A completely white underbelly rounds out their distinctive look.
Lifespan & Reproduction
Laysan Albatrosses live for several years. On average, most of them live from 12 to 40 years old. However, some can grow to the ripe old age of 50 or even 70.
These seabirds breed once every year, although some of them do skip breeding years occasionally. They often nest in large numbers around small islands and use vegetation or scoops of sand to build the nests. After fledging, juvenile Laysan Albatrosses return to the colony after three years, although their first mating doesn’t occur until after they reach seven or eight years old.
They build a bond with a mate over those first seven or eight years with ritualized courtship dances that entail approximately 25 different movements. Once they find their partner, they mate with that same bird for life.
After a male fertilizes the eggs, the female mate hatches and raises the newborns. January to mid-February is when chicks hatch. Squid oil and fish eggs, which are rich in fat, are some of the first foods fed to the chicks by adult birds. Both parents help with feeding, a process that involves regurgitation.
A chick can sustain itself on the nutrients and fatty acids from the fish eggs and squid for many days while their parents fly off to find food on long treks.
Where does the Laysan Albatross live?
Although Laysan Albatrosses base themselves throughout the Hawaiian Island chain of grassy, sandy, or open islands, they can spend months flying over the vast Pacific Ocean without touching down on the ground.
Their entire northern Pacific Ocean range spans throughout the southern Bering Sea, the Aleutian Islands, and Costa Rica. They like to look for food within colder waters, although they’re spotted in warmer waters, too.
They’ll often nest on Laysan Island, Midway Atoll, Kauai Island, Oahu Island, various smaller Hawaiian islands, and even areas of Japan and Mexico.
Females usually place their nests near small shrubs on the vegetated ground. They’ll use their feet to scrape a circular hole on sandy areas. She then uses sand, leaves, and twigs to create the nest’s rim. Female Laysan Albatrosses also nest under trees or on grassy areas.
Food & Diet
What does the Laysan Albatross eat?
The Laysan Albatross typically feeds at night as a surface feeder. They look for anything that floats on the ocean’s surface and makes for easy pickings. They eat the following:
- Floating carrion
- Fish eggs
- Anything thrown out by fishing boats
A Laysan Albatross sits on the ocean’s surface and grabs prey by plunging its beaks into the water. Adults will travel up to 1,500 miles away on trips that last almost three weeks when feeding chicks.
Threats & Predators
Even though various threats exist for all groups of albatrosses, the Laysan Albatross has the distinction of being the least-threatened group within the world’s 22 distinctive albatross species. Early 20th Century hunting threatened the long-term prospects for Laysan Albatrosses. However, their population numbers eventually recovered from the threat.
Human threats to the Laysan Albatross come from a couple of different areas.
Lead poisoning poses a threat to these seabirds on Midway Atoll. Over 80 Navy buildings sit near areas where chicks nest. Chicks suffer from high levels of lead concentrations in their blood, resulting in neurological problems, and even death. Lead paint in those buildings leads to the deaths of approximately 5% of the chicks hatched in the area each year.
Human plastic garbage in the ocean causes problems for Laysan Albatrosses. Many adults pick up plastic debris when foraging for food and bring it home to mistakenly feed it to their chicks.
Climate Change & Global Warming
Changing temperatures and rising sea levels cause significant risks to the Laysan Albatross. The higher elevations in Hawaii, for example, don’t work well for these seabirds because the areas are too settled or forestry covers most of them. An abundance of mongooses and dogs who prey on the Laysan Albatross doesn’t help the situation.
This means Laysan Albatrosses need plenty of room at the lower-elevation areas to nest and raise their young. Unfortunately, scientists predict that melting glaciers will continue to raise ocean levels that could eventually cover these important nesting places.
Climate change causes other problems that don’t seem as obvious as rising ocean waters. Temperature changes can shift the salinity and other chemical elements of an ocean. For instance, the amount of food existing in oceans becomes lessened as the waters get warmer.
Colder waters produce more nutrients that plankton, for example, use to grow. More oxygen exists in cooler waters. All of this produces the best overall environment for seabirds. This productivity goes down as water warms up and this makes it more difficult for adult Laysan Albatrosses to find food for their chicks.
Luckily for them, adult Laysan Albatrosses don’t have natural predators that actively prey on them.
Unfortunately, both adults and chicks get killed by dogs, mongooses, and cats that raid their nesting colonies. Rats also sometimes attack in these areas. From a historical perspective, hunters reduced Laysan Albatross populations in the early 1900s, but the seabirds have since rebounded.
Industrial fishing boats mistakenly trap Laysan Albatrosses on their fishing hooks as the seabirds traverse across international lines throughout the Pacific Ocean. It’s difficult to estimate the impact in this area because these deaths occur in the deep ocean where no one else is around.
While they’re currently a numerous species, Laysan Albatrosses are at risk for extinction, which has them listed as a Species of High Concern by the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan. Their population dipped to just under 20,000 pairs in the 1920s and this population rebounded to approximately 600,000 pairs by 2009.
Their biggest threat comes from the rising sea levels discussed above.
Fun Facts About Laysan Albatrosses
- They travel great distances of 1,500 miles or more.
- Sailors traditionally regarded them as good luck, due to their graceful, soaring nature.
- They can smell food in the ocean from as far away as 12 miles.
- Laysan Albatrosses can traverse into the fiercest storms and remain in the air without the need to flap their wings.
- A Laysan Albatross can fly for years without touching down on the solid ground.
- They have issues taking flight if the wind is calm. They take off best by facing the wind, running along the surface, and launching with their wings spread wide.
- They can drink seawater without dehydration becoming an issue because their bills excrete salt via two bony tubes.
- Their wingspan is larger than any other modern bird.