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Biodiversity: 62-year old bird continues to astound

‘A sign of hope’ for the species

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Wisdom and her mate guard their nest at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy USGS via the Creative Commons.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Along with logging about 50,000 miles in the air each year, the world’s oldest known albatross this year hatched another chick at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Wisdom, a Laysan albatross believed to be at least 62, has now reared offspring for six years in a row — “a sign of hope” for the species, according to Doug Staller, superintendent for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which includes the Midway Atoll NWR.

Wisdom has worn out five bird bands since she was first banded by U.S. Geological Survey scientist Chandler Robbins in 1956. Robbins estimated Wisdom to be at least 5 years old at the time, since this is the earliest age at which these birds breed. Typically, they breed at 8 or 9 years of age after a very involved courtship lasting over several years so Wisdom could be even older than 62.

Wisdom has likely raised at least 30 to 35 chicks during her breeding life, though the number may well be higher because experienced parents tend to be better parents than younger breeders,” said Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey North American Bird Banding Program.

Albatross lay only one egg a year, but it takes much of a year to incubate and raise the chick. After consecutive years in which they have successfully raised and fledged a chick, the parents may take the occasional next year off from parenting.

“As Wisdom rewrites the record books, she provides new insights into the remarkable biology of seabirds,” Peterjohn said. “It is beyond words to describe the amazing accomplishments of this wonderful bird and how she demonstrates the value of bird banding to better understand the world around us. If she were human, she would be eligible for Medicare in a couple years yet she is still regularly raising young and annually circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean. Simply incredible.”

Staff and volunteers stationed on Midway are responsible for monitoring the health of the beautiful seabirds that arrive every year by the hundreds of thousands to nest. Upon the seabirds’ arrival, field staff monitor them and gather information for one of the longest and oldest continuous survey data sets for tropical seabirds in the world.

“Wisdom is one is one of those incredible seabirds that has provided the world valuable information about the longevity of these beautiful creatures and reinforces the importance of breeding adults in the population. This information helps us measure the health of our oceans that sustain albatross,” said Sue Schulmeister, manager of the Midway Atoll NWR.

Nineteen of 21 species of albatross are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Present threats to the birds include lead poisoning of chicks on Midway from lead paint used in previous decades; longline fishing, where the birds are inadvertently hooked and drowned, though conservation groups have banded with fishermen and dramatically lowered the number of deaths from this cause; and pollution, especially from garbage floating on the ocean.

Present threats to the birds include lead poisoning of chicks on Midway from lead paint used in previous decades; longline fishing, where the birds are inadvertently hooked and drowned, though conservation groups have banded with fishermen and dramatically lowered the number of deaths from this cause; and pollution, especially from garbage floating on the ocean.

The birds ingest large amounts of marine debris – by some estimates 5 tons of plastic are unknowingly fed to albatross chicks each year by their parents. Although the plastic may not kill the chicks directly, it reduces their food intake, which leads to dehydration and most likely lessens their chance of survival. In addition, albatross are threatened by invasive species such as rats and wild cats, which prey on chicks, nesting adults and eggs. Albatross evolved on islands where land mammals were absent, so have no defenses against them.

Biologists estimate that Wisdom has probably flown about 2 to 3 million miles since she was first banded, equal to four or five trips to the moon, with some frequent flier miles left over. Albatross can surf wind currents for thousands of miles without flapping their wings.

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