February 3, 2013 Nature’s Perfect Gliding Machine: The Albatross
Albatross are the greatest long distance travelers on Earth. These globetrotters are the bloodhounds of the sea, miraculously making a modest living over the vast open ocean.
There are 24 species of albatross with approximately 1.8 million breeding pairs. Two species, the Laysan and Black-browed have about 600,000 breeding pair each.
Albatross 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 are designed with wings for powerful flight, but albatrosses 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 10.5 feet – the largest of all species. The wingspan to width of the Wandering albatross is 18 to 1, equal to that of the best human-made gliders.
The lift to drag ratio – lifting force to air resistance – measures 40 to 1, greater than triple that of eagles.
Wandering and Royal albatross weigh 26 pounds – twice that of bald eagles.
These beauties were designed 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.
Around the age of 13, albatross seek 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.
Then it takes a Herculean effort over an additional four months by both parents to feed and grow the chick to its fledging weight of about 23 pounds.
Each parent regurgitates a concentrated stream of gooey nutritious oil into the chick’s throat. The oil from the parent’s stomach is so caloric-rich it has been likened to commercial diesel oil in its energy-punch for young chicks.
Each parent forages the equivalent of circumnavigating the equator once – 25,000 miles – to feed the chick until it reaches fledging weight.
Sixty five percent of the eggs result in chicks that survive to fledging age. During their first attempt at flying, ten percent of young albatrosses are eaten by sharks. Of those that survive, 93-98 percent reach at least 20 years of age. Royals can live for 60 years and some may live as long as 100 years.
Albatrosses inhabit every ocean except the North Atlantic.
Most birds have a poor sense of smell. Albatrosses 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 in search of an earthy smell of phytoplankton. During the night, while flying, half their brain sleeps while the other half is awake.
Phytoplankton feeds zooplankton in turn feeding little fish, and little fish feed on squid. Squid die on 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 albatrosses on our planet.
Drift nets and over-fishing have had a horrendous impact on albatross. Each year about 1.1 billion commercial hooks are set; about one quarter of them are unregistered poacher boats.
An innovative approach to harvest fish has been implemented and within a decade it is hoped that it will be adopted by our entire planet.
Individual transferable quotas enable boats to own shares of the overall quota determined by scientists. The method is safer for people and their boats.
Global warming is also having a profound impact on albatross populations. Sea-ice is an integral part of how plankton makes its living. Millions of miles of sea-ice are missing.
Without plankton albatross cannot breed. Breeding numbers have dropped significantly in both hemispheres.
Albatross symbolize good luck. Any critter that can live in the wild for over 60 years and fly over 4 million miles must be admired and protected.
Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2013. All rights reserved.
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