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What is an Albatross?

An albatross's diet might include small squid.
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The albatrosses are a family of seabirds famous for their range, which occupies the high latitudes, and their size, including the living bird with the largest wingspan, the Wandering Albatross, with a wingspan up to 3.7 m (12 ft). The albatross is a common sight at sea for mariners traveling south of the Tropic of Capricorn or north of 30 degrees from the equator (except for the north Atlantic). An albatross can easily fly hundreds of miles without landing, relying on its huge wings, which allow it to glide for hours at a time without a single wing beat.

Like many other seabirds such as seagulls, most albatrosses are white, though they may have black highlights on their wings, and one genera, the sooty albatrosses, are black or tan. There are four genera of albatross, including the great albatrosses (Southern Ocean), the mollymawks (most common group, also found in the Southern Ocean), the North Pacific Albatrosses (Pacific), and the sooty albatrosses (South Atlantic and South Indian Ocean).

There are 21 recognized species of albatross in all, and 19 are threatened with extinction, mostly due to an estimated 100,000 albatrosses dying each year from fishing bycatch. Long-line fishing is the worst offender, as these birds get hooked on the lines when they try to consume caught fish, subsequently drowning. Stakeholders, including fishing companies and governments, are currently at work trying to lower this bycatch and protect the albatross.

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The diet of the albatross is composed of squid, fish, and krill, which they obtain using their long, sharp, hook-ended bills either via surface scavenging, surface seizing, or diving. Albatrosses can stay in the air for weeks at a time without landing, and most albatrosses can barely even walk. In the Southern Ocean, they continuously circle the globe, uninterrupted by major land masses. The albatross makes its nests on remote islands, including many islands too rocky and steep for human habitation. Evolutionarily, albatrosses are K-strategists, laying only one egg per breeding attempt, and requiring a year for that egg to hatch.

Albatrosses are so heavily adapted to soaring that their heart rate while flying differs little from their heart rate while resting. They exploit predictable wind patterns, with albatrosses in the southern hemisphere flying clockwise when traveling north, counterclockwise while traveling south. Since they depend so much on wind, an albatross caught in calm seas will need to descend to the water and rest on its surface until the wind picks up again.

Because of their beauty and ubiquity on the seas, albatrosses are considered one of the most iconic of seabirds.

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