Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans)

Wandering Albatross

[order] PROCELLARIIFORMES | [family] Diomedeidae | [latin] Diomedea exulans | [authority] Linnaeus, 1758 | [UK] Wandering Albatross | [FR] Albatros hurleur | [DE] Wanderalbatros | [ES] Albatros Viajero | [NL] Grote Albatros


Genus Species subspecies Region Range
Diomedea exulans SO widespread, except New Zealand


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

The Wandering Albatross has the longest wing-span of any ocean bird, spanning 2.5 – 3.5 m. In flight, the Wandering Albatross may appear somewhat humpbacked, and with pink toes visible.

Adults have a white or pale back, extending along the dorsal surface of the wings near the body, and white underwings. Except in fully mature old males, the white tail will have black edges. Up close, the bill is large, shapely, and pale-flesh coloured; and the white plumage of the head and body have very fine grey barring

Listen to the sound of Wandering Albatross

[audio:http://www.planetofbirds.com/MASTER/PROCELLARIIFORMES/Diomedeidae/sounds/Wandering Albatross.mp3]

Copyright remark: Most sounds derived from xeno-canto

recorded by Santiago Imberti

wingspan min.: 350 cm wingspan max.: 360 cm
size min.: 130 cm size max.: 140 cm
incubation min.: 75 days incubation max.: 80 days
fledging min.: 250 days fledging max.: 80 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 1  
      eggs max.: 1  


Southern Ocean : widespread, except New Zealand. Diomedea exulans breeds on South Georgia (Georgias del Sur) (c. 20% of the global breeding population), Prince Edward Islands (South Africa) (c. 40% of the global population), Crozet Islands and Kerguelen Islands (French Southern Territories) (approximately 40% of the global population) and Macquarie Island (Australia).


The Wandering Albatross is marine, pelagic and aerial. It occurs where water surface temperatures range from -2 degrees to 24 degrees C. In the Antarctic, the Wandering Albatross occurs in open water, rarely entering the belt of icebergs. In late summer, it may approach the edge of the pack-ice. In the Antarctic, it concentrates near submarine plateaux, banks and ridges. In the Australasian region, it occurs inshore, offshore and in pelagic waters. It flies within 15 m of the sea surface, using the updraft from wave fronts for lift. It circles over breeding islands to heights of at least 1500 m.

On breeding islands, the Wandering Albatross nests on coastal or inland ridges, slopes, plateaux and plains, often on marshy ground. Nests of the Wandering Albatross are sited on moss terraces, in dense tussocks, and often in loose aggregations on the west (windward) side of islands. It prefers open or patchy vegetation (tussocks, ferns or shrubs), and it requires nesting areas that are near exposed ridges or hillocks so that it can take off.


Breeding begins at around nine years of age, and adolescents visit the nesting islands from five years of age. The frequency of beachcast (dead) Wandering Albatrosses in New Zealand is highest in January and June. January coincides with the fledging time of chicks from nearby subantarctic islands, and June coincides with the arrival of young birds from breeding sites on the opposite side of the Antarctic and moult in adults, which makes them more vulnerable to bad weather.
The recent breeding success of the Wandering Albatross has been high (50%). It breeds biennially (if successful) in small, loose colonies among grass tussocks, using a large mud nest. Nesting starts in summer, but the cycle lasts for 11 months. Wandering Albatrosses return to their breeding sites from November. Old males reappear first, before the previous year’s young (the progeny of different adults) have all left, and the eggs are laid in late December and early January.
Nest building is done mostly by the female, but the male gathers most of the nesting material. A single egg is laid, which is incubated by both parents. The male usually takes the first shift, and the attentive period lasts two to three weeks. The average incubation period is around 78 days. Wandering Albatross eggs hatch in early March, and the chick is brooded by both adults in turn for four to five weeks, after which it is visited irregularly to be fed. Both adults continue to feed the chick at different times throughout winter. There is no desertion period. Wandering Albatross chicks fledge from mid-November to mid-December, an average of 278 days after hatching.
Juveniles of the Wandering Albatross may forage in areas that are separate from foraging areas of adults, although their ranges overlap with those of adults. For example, 177 Wandering Albatrosses seen in April near south eastern Tasmania were all juveniles.

Feeding habits

Diet consists of mainly squid and fish, but also crustaceans and carrion. The Wandering Albatross feeds mainly in pelagic, offshore and inshore waters. It feeds from the sea surface or just below it, or makes shallow dives from heights of 2-5 m. It regularly feeds in sheltered harbours and straits, and sometimes gathers at outfalls of unmodified sewage. Foraging behaviours such as flying long distances to search for food, following boats, feeding aggressively on offal and diving for baits makes the species susceptible to being drowned in longline fishing gear.

Video Wandering Albatross


copyright: Greg R Homel


Overall past and predicted future declines amount to a rapid population reduction over a period of three generations, qualifying the species as Vulnerable. At South Georgia, this species is undergoing a rapid decline over three generations (70 years). On the Crozet and Kerguelen Islands, the populations rapidly declined between 1970-1986, then stabilised, but have recently declined again. Longline fishing is believed to be a main cause of decline in this species, causing reductions in adult survival and juvenile recruitment, and this threat is ongoing.
The Wandering Albatross has a circumpolar distribution. It breeds on six subantarctic island groups. It also has colonies in the Indian Ocean (on the Crozet, Kerguelen, Marion and Prince Edward Islands) and on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. It feeds throughout the Southern Ocean. Females and juveniles generally feed at lower latitudes than males. There are several records of the Wandering Albatross from the northern hemisphere. Non-breeding birds are usually found between 30 degrees and 50 degrees south, where they take advantage of weather systems to exploit food resources.
Wandering Albatross status Vulnerable


The Wandering Albatross visits Australian waters from Fremantle, Western Australia to northern New South Wales between June and September each year. At other times birds roam the southern oceans and commonly follow fishing boats for several days. Banding returns suggest that adult Wandering Albatross and young disperse or migrate east. Movements of birds in southern breeding sites are probably circumpolar, but further study is required to confirm this. Banding of the Wandering Albatross at feeding concentrations has shown that birds of all age groups from all southern breeding colonies visit New South Wales, principally between July and November. Most birds appear to stay for only a short period. The Wandering Albatross is uncommon south of the Antarctic Convergence in winter, indicating that there is a northward shift in distribution then. Foraging trips by breeding Wandering Albatross have exceeded 15200 km between incubation bouts. The distance travelled by the Wandering Albatross is related to wind speed. It can be almost stationary in the centre of high pressure zones for one to seven days.

Distribution map

Wandering Albatross distribution range map


Author(s): PICKERING, S.P.C. & BERROW, S.D.
Abstract: The behaviour postures and their sequences during ..[more]..
Source: Marine Ornithology 29: 29-37.

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Author(s): J.P. Croxall and P.A. Prince
Abstract: We examine the extent of overlap between South Geo..[more]..
Source: CCAMLR Science, Vol. 3 (1996): 101-110

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Title Global population structure and taxonomy of the wandering
albatross species complex
Author(s): T. M. BURG and J . P. CROXALL
Abstract: A recent taxonomic revision of wandering albatross..[more]..
Source: Molecular Ecology (2004) 13 , 2345-2355

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Title Age-related mate choice in the wandering albatross
Abstract: We studied mate choice in the wandering albatross,..[more]..
Source: ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR, 1999, 57, 1099-1106

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Title Heart rate and energy expenditure of incubating wandering albatrosses: basal
levels, natural variation, and the effects of human disturbance
Author(s): Henri Weimerskirch
Abstract: We studied the changes in heart rate (HR) associat..[more]..
Source: The Journal of Experimental Biology 205, 475-483 (2002)

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Title Trails of the Wandering Albatross Applying the mathematics of haphazard motion
Abstract: The wandering albatross flies extraordinary distan..[more]..
Source: science news(150)7, 104

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Title Activity pattern of foraging in the wandering albatross: a marine predator with two
modes of prey searching
Author(s): Henri Weirnerskirchl et al.
Abstract: The foraging activity of wandering albatrosses Dio..[more]..
Source: Mar Ecol Prog Ser, Vol. 151: 245-251

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Title Orientation in the wandering albatross: interfering with magnetic perception does not affect orientation performance
Author(s): F. Bonadonna et al.
Abstract: After making foraging flights of several thousands..[more]..
Source: Proc. R. Soc. B (2005) 272, 489-495

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Title Extra-pair paternity in the strongly monogamous
Wandering Albatross
Diomedea exulans
has no
apparent benefits for females
Author(s): PIERRE JOUVENTIN et al.
Abstract: Although 92% of avian species are socially monogam..[more]..
Source: Ibis (2007),149, 67-78

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Title Levy flight search patterns of wandering albatrosses
Author(s): Viswanathan, G. M
Abstract: LEVY flights are a special class of random walks w..[more]..
Source: Nature (386)

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Title Evidence for olfactory search in wandering albatross,
Diomedea exulans
Author(s): Gabrielle A. Nevitt, Marcel Losekoot, and Henri Weimerskirch
Abstract: Wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) forage ov..[more]..
Source: PNAS, March 25, 2008, vol. 105, no. 12

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Title When do wandering albatrosses Diomedea exulans forage?
Author(s): Henri weimerskirch, Rory P. wilson
Abstract: Five free-living wandering albatrosses Diomedea ex..[more]..
Source: Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 86: 297-300, 1992

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Title Ten polymorphic microsatellite markers in the wandering
Diomedea exulans
Abstract: We describe 10 new variable dinucleotide microsate..[more]..
Source: Molecular Ecology Notes (2005)

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Author(s): John COOPER, Rory P. WILSON and Nigel J. ADAMS
Abstract: Deployment of devices which record timing and magn..[more]..
Source: Proc. NIPR Symp. Polar Biol., 6, 55-61, 1993

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Title Population changes and biology of the wandering albatross Diomedea exulans gibsoni at the Auckland Islands
Author(s): Kath Walker and Graeme Elliott
Abstract: Gibson?s wandering albatross Diomedea exulans gibs..[more]..
Source: DOC Science Internal Series 68

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Abstract: Exchange of 61 wandering albatrosses Diomedea exul..[more]..
Source: Afr. J. mar. Sci. 25: 519-523 2003

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Title Postnatal dispersal of wandering albatrosses Diomedea exulans:
implications for the conservation of the species
Author(s): Weimerskirch, H. et al.
Abstract: Many large marine vertebrates are today threatened..[more]..
Source: JOURNAL OF AVIAN BIOLOGY 37: 23-28, 2006

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Title Functional significance of sexual dimorphism in Wandering Albatrosses, Diomedea exulans
Author(s): S. A. SHAFFER
Abstract: 1.The investigation covered whether sexual dimorph..[more]..
Source: Functional Ecology 2001 15, 203-210

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