AskDefine | Define albatross

Dictionary Definition



1 (figurative) something that hinders or handicaps; "she was an albatross around his neck" [syn: millstone]
2 large web-footed birds of the southern hemisphere having long narrow wings; noted for powerful gliding flight [syn: mollymawk]

User Contributed Dictionary



An alteration of Portuguese word alcatraz (= "gannet"), under influence of the Latin word albus ("white"); alcatraz comes from Arabic al-ġaţţās ("the diver").


  1. Any of various large seabirds of the family Diomedeidae ranging widely in the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific and having a hooked beak and long narrow wings.
  2. A double eagle, or three under par on any one hole
  3. A long-term impediment, burden, or curse.
    Energy is the Albatross of U.S. National Security. - Senator Richard Lugar


three under par
long-term impediment

Extensive Definition

Albatrosses, of the biological family Diomedeidae, are large seabirds allied to the procellariids, storm-petrels and diving-petrels in the order Procellariiformes (the tubenoses). They range widely in the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific. They are absent from the North Atlantic, although fossil remains show they once occurred there too and occasional vagrants turn up. Albatrosses are amongst the largest of flying birds, and the great albatrosses (genus Diomedea) have the largest wingspans of any extant birds. The albatrosses are usually regarded as falling into four genera, but there is disagreement over the number of species.
Albatrosses are highly efficient in the air, using dynamic soaring and slope soaring to cover great distances with little exertion. They feed on squid, fish and krill by either scavenging, surface seizing or diving. Albatrosses are colonial, nesting for the most part on remote oceanic islands, often with several species nesting together. Pair bonds between males and females form over several years, with the use of 'ritualised dances', and will last for the life of the pair. A breeding season can take over a year from laying to fledging, with a single egg laid in each breeding attempt.
Of the 21 species of albatrosses recognised by the IUCN, 19 are threatened with extinction. Numbers of albatrosses have declined in the past due to harvesting for feathers, but today the albatrosses are threatened by introduced species such as rats and feral cats that attack eggs, chicks and nesting adults; by pollution; by a serious decline in fish stocks in many regions largely due to overfishing; and by long-line fishing. Long-line fisheries pose the greatest threat, as feeding birds are attracted to the bait, become hooked on the lines, and drown. Identified stakeholders such as governments, conservation organisations and people in the fishing industry are all working toward reducing this bycatch.

Albatross biology

Taxonomy and evolution

The albatrosses comprise between 13 and 24 species (the number of species is still a matter of some debate, 21 being the most commonly accepted number) in 4 genera. The four genera are the great albatrosses (Diomedea), the mollymawks (Thalassarche), the North Pacific albatrosses (Phoebastria), and the sooty albatrosses or sooties (Phoebetria). Of the four genera, the North Pacific albatrosses are considered to be a sister taxon to the great albatrosses, while the sooty albatrosses are considered closer to the mollymawks.
The taxonomy of the albatross group has been a source of a great deal of debate. The Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy places seabirds, birds of prey and many others in a greatly enlarged order Ciconiiformes, whereas the ornithological organisations in North America, Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand retain the more traditional order Procellariiformes. The albatrosses can be separated from the other Procellariiformes both genetically and through morphological characteristics, size, their legs and the arrangement of their nasal tubes (see Morphology and flight).
Within the family the assignment of genera has been debated for over a hundred years. Originally placed into a single genus, Diomedea, they were rearranged by Reichenbach into four different genera in 1852, then lumped back together and split apart again several times, acquiring 12 different genus names in total (though never more than eight at one time) by 1965 (Diomedea, Phoebastria, Thalassarche, Phoebetria, Thalassageron, Diomedella, Nealbatrus, Rhothonia, Julietata, Galapagornis, Laysanornis, and Penthirenia).
By 1965, in an attempt to bring some order back to the classification of albatrosses, they were lumped into two genera, Phoebetria (the sooty albatrosses which most closely seemed to resemble the procellarids and were at the time considered "primitive" ) and Diomedea (the rest). Though there was a case for the simplification of the family (particularly the nomenclature), the classification was based on the morphological analysis of Elliott Coues in 1866, and paid little attention to more recent studies and even ignored some of Coues's suggestions.
While there is some agreement on the number of genera, there is less agreement on the number of species. Historically, up to 80 different taxa have been described by different researchers; most of these were incorrectly identified juvenile birds.
Based on the work on albatross genera, Robertson and Nunn went on in 1998 to propose a revised taxonomy with 24 different species, compared to the 14 then accepted. This interim taxonomy elevated many established subspecies to full species, but was criticised for not using, in every case, peer reviewed information to justify the splits. Since then further studies have in some instances supported or disproved the splits; a 2004 paper analysing the mitochondrial DNA and microsatellites agreed with the conclusion that the Antipodean Albatross and the Tristan Albatross were distinct from the Wandering Albatross, per Robertson and Nunn, but found that the suggested Gibson's Albatross, Diomedea gibsoni, was not distinct from the Antipodean Albatross. For the most part, an interim taxonomy of 21 species is accepted by the IUCN and many other researchers, though by no means all — in 2004 Penhallurick and Wink called for the number of species to be reduced to 13 (including the lumping of the Amsterdam Albatross with the Wandering Albatross), although this paper was itself controversial. On all sides, there is the widespread agreement on the need for further research to clarify the issue.
Sibley and Ahlquist's molecular study of the evolution of the bird families has put the radiation of the Procellariiformes in the Oligocene period (35–30 million years ago), though this group probably originated earlier, with a fossil sometimes attributed to the order, a seabird known as Tytthostonyx, being found in late Cretaceous rocks (70 mya). The molecular evidence suggests that the storm-petrels were the first to diverge from the ancestral stock, and the albatrosses next, with the procellarids and diving petrels separating later. The earliest fossil albatrosses were found in Eocene to Oligocene rocks, although some of these are only tentatively assigned to the family and none appear to be particularly close to the living forms. They are Murunkus (Middle Eocene of Uzbekistan), Manu (early Oligocene of New Zealand), and an undescribed form from the Late Oligocene of South Carolina. Similar to the last was Plotornis, formerly often considered a petrel but now accepted as an albatross. It is from the Middle Miocene of France, a time when the split between the four modern genera was already underway as evidenced by Phoebastria californica and Diomedea milleri, both being mid-Miocene species from Sharktooth Hill, California. These show that the split between the great albatrosses and the North Pacific albatrosses occurred by 15 mya. Similar fossil finds in the southern hemisphere put the split between the sooties and mollymawks at 10 mya. The fossil record of the albatrosses in the northern hemisphere is more complete than that of the southern, and many fossil forms of albatross have been found in the North Atlantic, which today has no albatrosses. The remains of a colony of Short-tailed Albatrosses have been uncovered on the island of Bermuda, and the majority of fossil albatrosses from the North Atlantic have been of the genus Phoebastria (the North Pacific albatrosses); one, Phoebastria anglica, has been found in deposits in both North Carolina and England. See the genus accounts for more data on fossil species.

Morphology and flight

The albatrosses are a group of large to very large birds; they are the largest of the procellariiformes. The bill is large, strong and sharp-edged, the upper mandible terminating in a large hook. This bill is composed of several horny kids, and along the sides are the two "tubes", long nostrils that give the order its former name. The tubes of all albatrosses are along the sides of the bill, unlike the rest of the Procellariiformes where the tubes run along the top of the bill. These tubes allow the albatrosses to have an acute sense of smell, an unusual ability for birds. Like other Procellariiformes they use this olfactory ability while foraging in order to locate potential food sources. The feet have no hind toe and the three anterior toes are completely webbed. The legs are strong for Procellariiformes, in fact, almost uniquely amongst the order in that they and the giant petrels are able to be models.
The adult plumage of most of the albatrosses is usually some variation of dark upper-wing and back, white undersides, often compared to that of a gull. Of these, the species range from the Southern Royal Albatross which is almost completely white except for the ends and trailing edges of the wings in fully mature males, to the Amsterdam Albatross which has an almost juvenile-like breeding plumage with a great deal of brown, particularly a strong brown band around the chest. Several species of mollymawks and North Pacific albatrosses have face markings like eye patches or have grey or yellow on the head and nape. Three albatross species, the Black-footed Albatross and the two sooty albatrosses, vary completely from the usual patterns and are almost entirely dark brown (or dark grey in places in the case of the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross). Albatrosses take several years to get their full adult breeding plumage.
The wingspans of the largest great albatrosses (genus Diomedea) are the largest of any bird, exceeding 340 cm (over 11 feet), although the other species' wingspans are considerably smaller. The wings are stiff and cambered, with thickened streamlined leading edges. Albatrosses travel huge distances with two techniques used by many long-winged seabirds, dynamic soaring and slope soaring. Dynamic soaring enables them to minimise the effort needed by gliding across wave fronts gaining energy from the vertical wind gradient. Slope soaring is more straightforward: the albatross turns to the wind, gaining height, from where it can then glide back down to the sea. Albatross have high glide ratios, around 22:1 to 23:1, meaning that for every metre they drop, they can travel forward 22 metres. They are aided in soaring by a shoulder-lock, a sheet of tendon that locks the wing when fully extended, allowing the wing to be kept outstretched without any muscle expenditure, a morphological adaptation they share with the giant petrels.
Most albatrosses range in the southern hemisphere from Antarctica to Australia, South Africa and South America. The exceptions to this are the four North Pacific albatrosses, of which three occur exclusively in the North Pacific, from Hawaii to Japan, California and Alaska; and one, the Waved Albatross, breeds in the Galapagos Islands and feeds off the coast of South America. The need for wind in order to glide is the reason albatrosses are for the most part confined to higher latitudes; being unsuited to sustained flapping flight makes crossing the doldrums extremely difficult. The exception, the Waved Albatross, is able to live in the equatorial waters around the Galapagos Islands because of the cool waters of the Humboldt Current and the resulting winds.
Albatrosses are colonial, usually nesting on isolated islands; where colonies are on larger landmasses, they are found on exposed headlands with good approaches from the sea in several directions, like the colony on the Otago Peninsula in Dunedin, New Zealand. Colonies vary from the very dense aggregations favoured by the mollymawks (Black-browed Albatross colonies on the Falkland Islands have densities of 70 nests per 100 m²) to the much looser groups and widely spaced individual nests favoured by the sooty and great albatrosses. All albatross colonies are on islands that historically were free of land mammals. Albatrosses are highly philopatric, meaning they will usually return to their natal colony to breed. This tendency to return to their point of origin to breed is so strong that a study of Laysan Albatross showed that the average distance between hatching site and the site where a bird established its own territory was 22 metres.
Like most seabirds, albatrosses are K-selected with regard to their life history, meaning they live much longer than other birds, they delay breeding for longer, and invest more effort into fewer young. Albatrosses are very long lived; most species survive upwards of 50 years, the oldest recorded being a Northern Royal Albatross that was ringed as an adult and survived for another 51 years, giving it an estimated age of 61. Given that most albatross ringing projects are considerably younger than that, it is thought likely that other species will prove to live that long and even longer.
Albatrosses reach sexual maturity slowly, after about five years, but even once they have reached maturity, they will not begin to breed for another couple of years (even up to 10 years for some species). Young non-breeders will attend a colony prior to beginning to breed, spending many years practising the elaborate breeding rituals and "dances" that the family is famous for. Birds arriving back at the colony for the first time already have the stereotyped behaviours that compose albatross language, but can neither "read" that behaviour as exhibited by other birds nor respond appropriately. When a bird first returns to the colony it will dance with many partners, but after a number of years the number of birds an individual will interact with drops, until one partner is chosen and a pair is formed. They then continue to perfect an individual language that will eventually be unique to that one pair. Having established a pair bond that will last for life, however, most of that dance will never be used ever again.
Albatrosses are held to undertake these elaborate and painstaking rituals to ensure that the appropriate partner has been chosen and to perfect partner recognition, as egg laying and chick rearing is a huge investment. Even species that can complete an egg-laying cycle in under a year seldom lay eggs in consecutive years. In all albatross species, both parents incubate the egg in stints that last between one day and three weeks. Incubation lasts around 70 to 80 days (longer for the larger albatrosses), the longest incubation period of any bird. It can be an energetically demanding process, with the adult losing as much as 83 g of body weight a day.
After hatching, the chick is brooded and guarded for three weeks until it is large enough to defend and thermoregulate itself. During this period the parents feed the chick small meals when they relieve each other from duty. After the brooding period is over, the chick is fed in regular intervals by both parents. The parents adopt alternative patterns of short and long foraging trips, providing meals that weigh around 12% of their body weight (around 600 g). The meals are composed of both fresh squid, fish and krill, as well as stomach oil, an energy-rich food that is lighter to carry than undigested prey items. This oil is created in a stomach organ known as a proventriculus from digested prey items by most tubenoses, and gives them their distinctive musty smell.
Albatross chicks take a long time to fledge. In the case of the great albatrosses, it can take up to 280 days; even for the smaller albatrosses, it takes anywhere between 140 and 170 days. Like many seabirds, albatross chicks will gain enough weight to be heavier than their parents, and prior to fledging they use these reserves to build up body condition (particularly growing all their flight feathers), usually fledging at the same weight as their parents. Albatross chicks fledge on their own and receive no further help from their parents, who return to the nest after fledging, unaware their chick has left. Studies of juveniles dispersing at sea have suggested an innate migration behaviour, a genetically coded navigation route, which helps young birds when they are first out at sea.

Albatrosses and humans


The name albatross is derived from the Arabic al-câdous or al-ġaţţās (a pelican; literally, "the diver"), which travelled to English via the Portuguese form alcatraz ("gannet"), which is also the origin of the title of the former prison, Alcatraz. The OED notes that the word alcatraz was originally applied to the frigatebird; the modification to albatross was perhaps influenced by Latin albus, meaning "white", in contrast to frigatebirds which are black. This sport reached its peak on emigration lines bound for Australia, and only died down when ships became too fast to fish from, and regulations stopped the discharge of weapons for safety reasons. In the 19th century, albatross colonies, particularly those in the North Pacific, were harvested for the feather trade, leading to the near extinction of the Short-tailed Albatross.
albatross in Arabic: قطرس
albatross in Bengali: আলবাট্রস
albatross in Czech: Albatrosovití
albatross in Danish: Albatrosser
albatross in German: Albatrosse
albatross in Estonian: Albatroslased
albatross in Spanish: Diomedeidae
albatross in Esperanto: Albatrosoj
albatross in Persian: آلباتروس
albatross in French: Diomedeinae
albatross in Western Frisian: Albatrossen
albatross in Croatian: Albatrosi
albatross in Ido: Albatroso
albatross in Indonesian: Albatros
albatross in Italian: Diomedeidae
albatross in Hebrew: אלבטרוסיים
albatross in Georgian: ალბატროსისებრნი
albatross in Swahili (macrolanguage): Albatrosi
albatross in Lithuanian: Albatrosiniai
albatross in Hungarian: Albatroszfélék
albatross in Dutch: Albatrossen
albatross in Japanese: アホウドリ亜科 (Sibley)
albatross in Norwegian: Albatrosser
albatross in Norwegian Nynorsk: Albatrossfamilien
albatross in Polish: Albatrosy
albatross in Portuguese: Diomedeidae
albatross in Romanian: Diomedeidae
albatross in Russian: Альбатросовые
albatross in Simple English: Albatross
albatross in Slovak: Albatrosovité
albatross in Finnish: Albatrossit
albatross in Swedish: Albatrosser
albatross in Tamil: அல்பட்ரோஸ்
albatross in Turkish: Albatros
albatross in Ukrainian: Альбатросові
albatross in Chinese: 信天翁科
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