62-Year-Old Female Albatross Still Sexually Active
At age 62, Wisdom the Laysan albatross has produced a healthy chick, hatched last Sunday at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific Ocean. This atoll houses about 70 percent of the world population of albatrosses.
Scientists and biologists are reacting with wonder to this little bundle of joy.
Indeed, it’s amazing that this albatross, the oldest known living wild bird at age 62, is even alive, let alone having a chick. The average Laysan albatross lives between 12 and 40 years, and scientists believed that, just like other birds, albatross females became infertile late in life.
Wisdom is proving them wrong. Her poor mate, presumed to be much younger, apparently does not merit a name. In the above photo, Wisdom is trying to nudge him off her precious egg.
Wisdom was first banded in 1956, during the Eisenhower administration, as she incubated an egg, and she was estimated to be at least 5 years old then. This is the earliest age at which these birds breed, though they more typically breed at 8 or 9 after an involved courtship lasting several years.
The San Jose Mercury News reports:
Since then, she has worn out five ID bands, returning year after year to lay an egg at Midway, a remote island northeast of Hawaii that was the site of a famous 1942 naval battle. Today, it’s a U.S. national wildlife refuge where hundreds of thousands of albatrosses nest every year.
Albatrosses lay only one egg a year. Legendary long-distance marvels of the animal kingdom, they fly thousands of miles across the ocean, gliding on wind currents with their large wings. They feed on fish, squid and other marine life.
Researchers estimate that if Wisdom flew typical routes, she quite probably has traveled 50,000 miles a year as an adult. That’s at least 2 million to 3 million miles since she was first banded, the equivalent of four to six trips from Earth to the moon and back.
Scientists are hoping that Wisdom’s advanced-age reproduction can help them understand more about these fascinating birds, and also about the health of the ocean.
However, it may be that scientists first need to improve the way they track these birds. Since 1956, thousands of Laysan and other species of albatross have been banded. The study was undertaken to try and understand why so many were of them striking and damaging Navy aircraft, as well as killing themselves.
Did they consider that these birds were on suicide missions, I wonder? They must have hated Navy aircraft invading their peaceful home. In any case, the tracking bands tend to fall off after 20 years, sometimes before there is time to replace them.
Sadly, humans are probably responsible for the demise of the albatross: fishermen throw bait into the ocean to lure fish, but these large birds swoop down to consume the fish, and end up swallowing fish and hook. That often leads to their death. As of now, 19 of 21 albatross species are threatened with extinction.
Perhaps Wisdom can help keep up the population of albatrosses! Unlike the albatross in Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Wisdom seems to be an omen of good luck, and definitely not a curse.
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Photo Credit: USFWS Pacific