The wandering albatross knows how to break records. It has the longest wingspan of any bird that can fly, and it’s also probably the longest-lived bird in the wild. Now a group of UK scientists have discovered something else that might seem unusual about this very special bird. Like many animals with long lives, it tends to reproduce slowly. But data from 30 years of studying a nest colony on Bird Island, South Georgia has revealed that aging parents seem to have a better chance of success when they’re raising their very last chick.
The team included scientists from the University of Edinburgh, as well as the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and they’ve published their results in Ecology Letters.
The wandering albatross has always captured the imagination because of its incredible 3.5 meter wingspan that allows it to spend most of its life on the wing soaring above the world’s oceans — seemingly without much effort. One bird was recorded as traveling over 3,700 miles in only 12 days. They spend about a decade growing up, reaching sexual maturity between the age of 9 and 11. Then they pair up and mate for life.
Their somewhat human-like behavior, combined with their enviable life in the air, has captured the human imagination for centuries. As all high school students who have been assigned Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner know, to kill an albatross was once considered bad luck and almost as sinful as killing a human being.
Now we can add another humanlike trait to wandering albatross behavior — the fact that they seem to pamper their youngest chick and give it that extra push to make sure that it succeeds. University of Edinburgh biologist Hannah Froy said, “By increasing the investment in the last chick, individuals may be able to capitalise on one final opportunity to pass on their genes before they die.”
She said that this so-called “terminal investment” is rarely observed in vertebrates, but we older children think we have observed it over and over again in humans, where it’s a common thing for some parents to spoil the baby of the family.
For irresistible video of a wandering albatross family, check out this clip from David Attenborough’s famous series on bird life:
Now I have another question. How does the aging pair of wandering albatross know it’s their last chick?
[wandering albatross photo courtesy J.J. Harrison and Wikipedia Commons]