Miracle On The Midway
February 7, 2013

Wisdom For Motherhood: Oldest Living Albatross Hatches Another Chick

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

On December 10, 1956, a five-year-old Laysan albatross was tagged at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Last week, at the age of 62, Wisdom, the world's oldest living wild bird, and her mate hatched a healthy chick at Midway.

Wisdom was spotted sitting on her nest on November 29, 2012 by a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, and her return to the Wildlife Refuge was greeted with wonder. The average Laysan albatross dies at less than half her age, and according to current scientific thought, albatross females become infertile late in life and carry on without producing chicks.

This isn't Wisdom's "miracle chick" though. She has hatched five since 2006 that the scientists know of, and approximately 35 in her lifetime. Wisdom defies comparison and she might just cause researchers to toss their early theories about birds out the door.

Even more astonishing than her late-in-life fertility and age, Wisdom has likely flown up to 3 million miles according to the researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey who track her. In an enthusiastic announcement released by the USGS, that is “4 to 6 trips from the Earth to the Moon and back again with plenty of miles to spare.”

“It blows us away that this is a 62-year-old bird and she keeps laying eggs and raising chicks,” Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the Bird Banding Laboratory at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, told the Washington Post.

“We know that birds will eventually stop reproducing, when they´re too old to breed anymore,” he said. “The assumption about albatross is it will happen to them, too. But we don´t know where that line is. That in and of itself is pretty amazing.”

Studying Wisdom to understand her advanced age reproduction will help scientists understand more about the albatross species. It will also teach them more about the health of the oceans.

“These birds are emblematic of the health of the ocean and the health of that ecosystem,” Peterjohn told Post reporter Darryl Fears. “It has to be healthy for them to live long.”

This might be true, but first the USGS and other groups that study albatrosses have to untangle some shortcomings in the research because past methods of data collection have been "a little shaky."

Since 1956, thousands of Laysan and other species of albatross have been banded when scientists at the atoll first started studying them. The researchers were attempting to figure out why so many birds were striking Navy aircraft, killing the birds and damaging the planes.

The tags, or tracking bands, were not terribly reliable. After about 20 years, they tended to fall off, many times before being replaced. Wisdom herself has been through six tags, which were replaced before she lost them.

Peterjohn says that as far as he and other scientists know, “half the birds could be 60 years old. These birds could be much older than we think.”

Of the 21 species of albatross, 19 are threatened with extinction. These threats could be directly linked to human interactions, including long-line fishing where fisherman throw bait into the ocean to lure fish but lure the albatross as well. The birds become hooked and drown when they float on the water to eat. The bird populations are also being decimated by plastic debris and invasive species such as rats and wild cats.

There are other bird species that live longer than the albatross; parrots in captivity can live to 80 for example. But they are the largest seabird, with wingspans as wide as eight feet. Peterjohn says, “like a sea gull on steroids,” the albatross dwarfs the average gray gull.

Albatrosses are the oldest known bird in the wild. Wisdom's chick this year edged out the second oldest known albatross to reproduce, a 61-year old Northern Royal albatross named Grandma. Grandma hasn't been seen at Taiaroa Head, New Zealand for the last three years, and she is presumed dead.