Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi)

Northern Royal Albatross

[order] PROCELLARIIFORMES | [family] Diomedeidae | [latin] Diomedea sanfordi | [authority] Murphy, 1917 | [UK] Northern Royal Albatross | [FR] Urotangara de Stolzmann | [DE] Konigsalbatros | [ES] Albatros Real | [NL] Noordelijke Koningsalbatros


Monotypic species


Albatrosses are the ‘largest’ birds in terms of wingspan. Royal Abatrosses, for instance, may reach a wing span of almost 3.5m, which make them look like feathered sail plaines. They are also the largest members of the tubenose family. Only the smallest albatross species are equalled in size by the Giant Petrels (Macronectes). Albatrosses occur in all oceans, except the northern part of the Atlantic. In ancient times they were also present in that part of the world, but nowadays only an occasional straggler find its way to the North Atlantic. Most of the 24 species are Southern Hemisphere breeders, only three actually breed north of the Equator in the Pacific Ocean.
Albatross taxonomy is subject of discussion for a long time, and has been at times rather chaotic. Based on external characters: plumage patterns, tail shapes, bill structure (size, organization of the plates and coloration) albatrosses were, until recently, divided in 13-14 species in four ‘natural groups’: the Great Albatrosses, the Mollymawks, the North Pacific Albatrosses, grouped in the genus Diomedea and the Sooty Albatrosses Phoebastria. More recently DNA-analyses supports the division in four distinct groups but the were elevated to a generic status and has led to a splitting into 24 species: Great Albatrosses Diomedea (7 species), the Northern (Pacific) Albatrosses Phoebastria (4 species), the southern Mollymawks Thalassarche (11 species) and the Sooty Albatrosses Phoebetria (2 species). Recently this taxonomy is challenged by who proposed to lump some of the ‘species’ again based on their molecular analysis. Since then the discussion flared up and has not ended yet. Some list six species of Great Albatrosses, including two subspecies of Antipodian Albatross.

Physical charateristics

Huge, white-and-black albatross. Juvenile, white head, neck, upper mantle, rump and underparts (with some dark speckling on crown and rump). White mantle and back flecked black. Dark black-brown upperwing with white flecks on coverts. White tail, tipped black-brown. White underwing with black tip and diagnostic black band behind leading edge between carpal joint and tip. With maturity, head, back, rump, tail and scapular region become mainly white. All ages, light pink bill (darker pink when chick rearing) with black cutting edge on upper mandible. Legs flesh. White head, body, tail distinguish adults from Wandering Albatross D. exulans, which also lacks dark line on bill. Southern Royal Albatross D. epomophora lacks black band at carpal edge of underwing and leading edge of upperwing is white except for primaries

wingspan min.: 310 cm wingspan max.: 330 cm
size min.: 103 cm size max.: 107 cm
incubation min.: 76 days incubation max.: 81 days
fledging min.: 230 days fledging max.: 250 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 1  
      eggs max.: 1  


Pacific Ocean : Chatham Islands, NZ. Diomedea sanfordi breeds on Forty-Fours, Big and Little Sister Islands (Chatham Islands), Taiaroa Head (Otago Peninsula, South Island) and Enderby Island (Auckland Islands), New Zealand.


Northern Royal Albatrosses usually nest on the flat summits of tiny islands with herb fields8 and grasses. The nest is typically a low mound of vegetation, mud, feathers, stone chips etc, on flat ground and slopes on islands and headlands.


Eggs are laid in October to December, hatching mostly between late January and early February, and chicks fledge in September-October. It is a biennial breeder, if chick rearing is successful. Juvenile birds start returning to the colony when 3 years old but the mean is 4 years of age. Age of first breeding can be as early as 6 years old, but it is usually 8 years of age. The northern royal albatross usually pairs for life, with new pairs performing elaborate courtship displays that include actions like ?bill-circling’, ?sky-pointing’, ?flank-touching’ with the bill, and full spreading of the wings, typically accompanied by a variety of calls. Breeding occurs every two years if successful. Previously mated pairs usually use the same nest site from season to season , and usually return to their breeding grounds between mid-October and mid-November, with the female laying her single egg a month later. After 79 days incubation the hatchling emerges, and the young fledges 240 days later from September to October the following year.

Feeding habits

It feeds mainly on cephalopods and fish, but also salps, crustacea and carrion


This species is classified as Endangered because it is restricted to a tiny breeding range in which severe storms in the 1980s resulted in a decrease in habitat quality, which led to poor breeding success. Based on this low breeding success it is projected to undergo a very rapid decline over the next three generations (84 years). By 2002, at the end of egg-laying, 5,800 pairs were counted, with a probable 1,700 pairs at sea (after breeding in the previous season). This suggests that in spite of the extensive reduction in productivity over a 20 year period, the number of breeding pairs may have remained relatively stable14.
A storm that hit the Chatham Islands in 1985 had a dramatic impact on the reproductive success of the northern royal albatross, reducing soil cover and destroying all vegetation so that nests had to be constructed with stones, or eggs simply laid on bare rock. As a result, annual reproductive success plummeted due to egg breakage, high temperatures and flooding in temporary pools. Introduced predators pose an additional threat, with stoats (Mustela erminea) and cats known to take eggs and chicks at Taiaroa Head. Albatrosses are notoriously vulnerable to becoming entangled in fishing equipment whilst feeding on baited hooks or catch, and mortality due to longline fishing activities may pose a future threat to this species
Northern Royal Albatross status Endangered


During the breeding season adults typically forage over the Chatham Rise. Non-breeding birds undertake circumpolar traverses in the Southern Oceans and forage in the Humboldt Current and Patagonian Shelf, off the coasts of South America.

Distribution map

Northern Royal Albatross distribution range map

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