Laysan albatross
Laysan albatross Makana a Laysan albatross

Animal Facts

  • Scientific Name

    Phoebastria immutabilis

  • Animal Type

    Birds

  • Habitat

    Open Waters

  • Diet

    squid, fish, fish eggs, crustaceans and floating carrion

  • Size

    32 inches (81 cm) in length, wingspan 77 to 80 inches (195 to 203 cm)

  • Relatives

    Black-footed albatross; Family: Diomedeidae

  • Habitat

    Open Waters

  • Range

    across the northern Pacific Ocean from Costa Rica north to the Aleutian Islands and southern Bering Sea

    Laysan albatross range map

Natural History

Magnificent mariners of lore and literature, albatrosses are the largest seabirds and among the largest flying birds. They soar effortlessly and almost endlessly, spending much of their lives aloft. With a wingspan of six feet (2 m), the Laysan albatross is one of the smaller species and adept at diving for squid, fish and crustaceans.

Males and females engage in elaborate courtship displays with an array of sounds and gestures for successive seasons to find a mate and strengthen a pair bond that typically lasts for life.

The most common North Pacific species, Laysan albatross number more than 660,000 breeding pairs just on Midway Atoll in the northwest Hawaiian Islands, the largest nesting colony. Most of the world's Laysan albatross breed on Midway or two other Hawaiian sites: Laysan Island and French Frigate Shoals. The species has begun nesting on Kauai and Oahu, and small breeding colonies also occur on islands near Japan and Mexico. The total population size is not easy to estimate, as perhaps a quarter of the species may be at sea skipping a nesting season or not mature enough to breed.


In Monterey Bay

Adult albatrosses head from Hawaii to Monterey to take advantage of the rich food supply in the California Current's cold, upwelling ocean water. One of three albatross species that venture here, Laysan albatross can be observed from Point Pinos in Pacific Grove, but better odds for spotting it occur well offshore aboard whale watching boats.


Conservation

In the late nineteenth century, hunters exploited Laysan albatross breeding colonies from Japan eastward across the Pacific. The birds' dense down became pillow stuffing and wing plumes adorned women's hats. Albatross eggs provided albumen for a photographic printing process. In 1909, U. S. President Theodore Roosevelt protected the seabirds by creating a preserve of the western Hawaiian Islands.

A more recent threat for albatross species has been birds injured or drowned as bycatch in the longline fishery for swordfish, sashimi-grade tuna and other commercial species. In this method, a main fishing line suspends shorter branch lines, each set with hundreds of baited hooks. The bait also lures birds that get tangled in the lines or snagged on the hooks. Adopting new fishing techniques such as dying bait blue and setting lines at night and with heavier weights on them greatly reduced the number of Laysan albatross and other seabirds caught by longlines in Hawaii.

Lead-based paint in buildings on Midway Atoll from its duty as a U.S. Navy base poisons perhaps 10,000 albatross chicks each year from exposure to paint chips or contaminated soil. Efforts to remove the sources of lead contamination continue.

Plastic trash poses a persistent problem. Dead albatross chicks have stomachs stuffed with beads, buttons, pens and cigarette lighters. Adults forage at sea for flying fish eggs under rafts of rubbish, later regurgitating the garbage into the mouths of hungry nestlings, which can damage the digestive system or lead to malnutrition.

The projected rise in sea level from melting polar ice may impact Laysan albatross breeding on low-lying atolls. If critical nesting space were to submerge, higher elevation colony sites elsewhere in Hawaii could be crucial to this species' future.

Learn more about Laysan albatross and plastics


Cool Facts

  • The eyes of Laysan albatross contain a high concentration of rhodopsin, a light-sensitive pigment that sharpens nocturnal vision and may help to spot squid at night.
  • A Laysan albatross named Wisdom is the world's oldest known albatross or wild bird of any kind. Wisdom hatched a new chick on Midway in 2017 when she was likely 66 years old.
  • Lack of variation in plumage due to age or sex earned the Laysan albatross its scientific species name immutabilis, or "unchanging."
  • Albatrosses can lock their wing bones in place to enable more efficient gliding.

 Animal Guide Home