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Thursday, 31 August, 2000, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Where the albatross wanders
Albatross BBC
Males and females head in different directions
Scientists have shed light on the secret life of the wandering albatross.

Among the world's biggest birds, the albatross has an awesome ability to glide above the Southern Ocean, sometimes covering thousands of kilometres in a single flight.

Its lifestyle has fascinated scientists, who only get to see the bird close up when it breeds, the one time it ever touches land.

Where the albatross goes after it has reared its young has always been a mystery. It disappears for an entire year before it returns to the traditional breeding site on islands near Antarctica.

Evidence culled by two researchers at French and German institutes has yielded a surprising answer, one which raises renewed fears for the bird, already endangered by long-line fishing.

Light meter

The scientists attached small light intensity meters to the legs of nine wandering albatrosses after they had returned to their nesting site on the Crozet Islands in the southern Indian Ocean.

The meters were able to record the local time of dawn and dusk which, when compared with an internal clock based on GMT, enabled the scientists to calculate the birds' longitude and latitude on a given day.

When the tags were recovered a year later, four were found to have worked properly, enabling the researchers to plot the movements of two males and two females.

Islands  BBC
Albatross breed on the lonely Crozet islands
They found that, far from wandering aimlessly in the southern skies, the albatrosses headed for preferred sites.

The females sought balmy tropical and sub-tropical waters south of Madagascar, while the males preferred chillier climes, spending the winter just north of the pack ice in Antarctica.

The distances from the nesting site ranged from 1,500-8,500 km (950-5,250 miles).

The findings have important implications for efforts to ensure the survival of the wandering albatross.

By a terrible quirk of fate, the four birds chose to spend their sabbatical year in waters being developed for long-line fishing for tuna and toothfish, the researchers said.

Slow breeders

Tens of thousands of wandering albatrosses are killed each year by drowning, when they get snared on baited hooks set by long-line fishermen.

"Only those [albatrosses] wintering in zones without fisheries will survive in the long term," said Henri Weimerskirch of the French Institute for Polar Research and Technology and Rory Wilson of the Institut für Meereskunde in Kiel.

The toll is especially worrying given the unusual breeding characteristics of this species. A mating couple produces only one chick, which takes a year of nurturing before it can fend for itself.

During this time, the parents fly an estimated 150,000 kilometres (95,000 miles) foraging for squid and fish.

They then unsurprisingly take a year off before returning to the breeding business.

Wandering albatrosses, one of a dozen members of the albatross family, have a wingspan of up to 3.4 metres (11 feet), the largest spread of any bird today.

The research is published in Nature.

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20 Jun 99 | Asia-Pacific
Australia to create Antarctic marine park
02 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Fears for Antarctic fish
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