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Saturday 19 June 2021 is World Albatross Day. A true icon of the high seas, these elusive creatures spend most of their time gliding over the open ocean. However, these oceanic wanderers are threatened by human activity, making it vitally important that awareness of these birds is raised. So, to celebrate these magnificent seabirds, here are six things you didn’t know about albatrosses.

1. They have the largest wingspan of any living bird

The wingspan of the largest albatross - the wandering albatross - can reach an incredible three metres. Albatrosses use these spectacular wingspans to ride ocean winds, gliding for hours without a flap of their wings. They’re so efficient at flying that they can use less energy whilst in the air than they would while sitting at their nest! Scientists and engineers are researching how copying this flying strategy could be used to design more fuel-efficient aircrafts.

2. Albatrosses can live to 70 years old

The oldest known albatross, a female laysan albatross, is at least 70 years old. This famous bird, known as Wisdom, was first ringed in 1956 at Midway Atoll in Hawaii and is still successfully breeding chicks into 2021. By studying Wisdom, scientists have gained a better understanding of how long seabirds can live and how we can better protect these birds and their habitat.

3. Albatrosses have a great repertoire of dance moves

Albatrosses have elaborate and unique mating rituals. Albatrosses court each other with a mating dance which includes rapid circling, bowing, mouth gaping and a “whoo-ooo” call. There are 22 different recognisable dance components. The sequence of actions creates a unique dance for each couple, which they use to identify each other.

4. There are many different types of albatross

There are 22 species of albatross, ranging from the wandering albatross, the largest and most well-known, to rare birds such as the short-tailed albatross. 15 of these are threatened with extinction. Eight species are classed as endangered or critically endangered. These birds are predominately threatened by bycatch from longline fishing, where they become caught in baited hooks. Plastic pollution is also a massive problem, with albatrosses often mistaking balloons and other plastic for food such as squid. This causes problems when regurgitating plastics to feed to chicks, causing starvation in both adults and chicks.

5. Albatrosses can form same sex couples

Female laysan albatrosses often pair with other females. These pairs raise chicks together after their eggs are fertilized by a male. This is particularly common in colonies with many more female birds than male birds. For example, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, 31 percent of the pairs were found to be same sex couples. Although same sex couples have lower reproductive success that male-female partnerships, it’s a better option than the zero chicks a female will produce without any partner at all!

6. They can go years without touching land

Albatrosses spend most of their lives at sea and can fly 16,000 km without returning to land. A young albatross may fly within three to ten months, leaving land behind for five to ten years until they reach sexual maturity and return to breed. GPS trackers have allowed researchers to discover that a grey headed albatross had flown an incredible 22,000 km around the world in the southern hemisphere in 46 days.

To find out more about albatrosses check out our work on Gough Island.