On a Wing and a Prayer - Feature Article
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Albatrosses are icons of the Southern Ocean, but all bar two of the 21 species are now threatened with extinction. We talk to albatross expert Dr Richard Phillips of British Antarctic Survey to find out how science can help save this extraordinary seabird.
Albatrosses are the stuff of legend. Immortalised in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and once thought to contain the souls of sailors lost at sea, it's easy to see why the albatross has become such an iconic species.
According to Dr Richard Phillips of British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the sight of an albatross at sea, thousands of miles from land, is a very special experience: "Albatrosses will often follow ships, sometimes for days on end. Seeing these beautiful great, white birds flying off the back of the ship you're on really captures people's imaginations."
Albatrosses are among the largest flying birds on Earth. With their massive wingspan, they spend most of their lives at sea.
Heading for extinction
But it is this extraordinary lifestyle - coupled with humans' insatiable appetite for tuna and other fish - that is putting most species of albatross at risk of extinction.
Because they are almost as long-lived as humans, albatrosses take many years to reach sexual maturity. An albatross will be around 10 years old before it finds a mate and breeds. Although most breed annually, nine species - including the wandering albatross - lay only one egg every two years,
"Everything they do is slow," says Phillips, who has spent the last seven years studying the albatrosses breeding at South Georgia. "It takes a long time for them to raise a chick, the chick takes a long time to learn how to forage, and it won't breed successfully until it's 10 years old or more. If you do the maths, you have to have enough birds surviving that early period and producing enough chicks to sustain the population. And because chick production is so slow, even a small increase in the death rate among adults will cause the population to decline."
Scientists at BAS have been monitoring albatross populations at its research station at Bird Island, South Georgia, since the early 1960s. Lying off the north-west tip of South Georgia, Bird Island is a rocky, windswept island just five kilometres long. Its only human inhabitants are the handful of BAS scientists who work there studying the thousands of seals, albatrosses and other birds that use the island to breed on.