Phoebastria albatrus

Phoebastria albatrus

Short-tailed Albatross
FWS Focus

Overview

The largest and only white-bodied albatross in the north Pacific. Golden, yellow cast on head and nape. Upper wings: white with black primaries, secondaries, and tertials. Under wing: white with black leading and trailing edges. White tail with black fringe. Large, pink bill with blue tip and black boarder around the base. Pale bluish feet and legs. Length: 84-91 cm (33.6-36.4 in); wingspan: 213-229 cm (7-7.5 ft); average life span: 12-45 yrs.
Characteristics
Overview

The short-tailed albatross was listed by the USFWS as endangered throughout its range in 2000.  At the turn of the 20th century millions were harvested by feather hunters resulting in the near-extinction of the species. The species breeds primarily on remote islands in the western Pacific. Just two areas currently host the majority of breeding pairs: Torishima Island, Japan, an active volcano; and the Senkaku Island Group, northwest of Taiwan.  From 2008 to 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Japanese partners at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology worked together to establish a third breeding colony by translocating chicks from Torishima to a historic breeding location on the island of Mukojima. Recently, there has been limited yet successful breeding of short-tailed albatross on Midway Atoll in Hawaii

During the nonbreeding season, short-tailed albatross range along the Pacific Rim from southern Japan to the west coast of Canada and the United States, primarily along continental shelf margin. Immature birds exhibit two patterns of post-breeding dispersal: some move rapidly north to the western Aleutian Islands; others stay within the coastal waters of northern Japan and the Kuril Islands throughout the summer. In early September, the individuals that remained near northern Japan in the summer move into the western Aleutian Islands. Once in the Aleutians, most birds travel east toward the Gulf of Alaska (USFWS 2008).  Sightings of individual short-tailed albatross have been recorded along the west coast of North America, as far south as the Baja Peninsula, Mexico (USFWS 2008)

Although the highest concentrations of short-tailed albatross are found in the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea regions (primarily along the outer shelf) of Alaska, sub-adults appear to be distributed along the west coast of the U.S. (Guy et al. 2013). Juveniles and younger sub-adult birds (up to 2 years old) use a wider geographic range than adults; they can be found in the Sea of Okhotsk, over a broad region of the Bering Sea, and the west coast of North America (O'Connor et al. 2013).  Sub-adult birds travel greater daily distances than adults (Suryan et al. 2007b).  Post-fledging juvenile birds range widely throughout the North Pacific rim, and some individuals spend time in the oceanic waters between Hawaii and Alaska (Deguchi et al. 2014).

Short-tailed albatross forage diurnally and possibly nocturnally, either alone or in groups and predominantly hunt for prey by surface-seizing. The short-tailed albatross feeds on squid, crustaceans, and various fishes; chicks are fed a mixture of stomach oil and partially digested, regurgitated food. The short-tailed albatross visits and follows commercial fishing vessels in Alaska, and although commercial longlining bait is not historically a part of the short-tailed albatross' normal diet, it now constitutes a notable portion of the calorie intake for these bird. In addition, albatross chicks and adults eat trash and plastics found in the Pacific Ocean. Albatross chicks often choke and die from eating the plastics.

Short-tailed albatross follow fishing vessels and are sometimes hooked or entangled in longline fishing gear and drowned. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working with the commercial fishing industry, Washington Sea Grant, and National Marine Fisheries Service to minimize take of this endangered seabird. Through this collaborative conservation effort, a type of seabird avoidance technology called “streamer lines” was developed to reduce threat to albatrosses of becoming bycatch by fishing vessels. Streamer lines create a visual barrier that keeps seabirds away from the baited hooks. In Alaska, streamer lines deployed on fishing vessels has led to a major reduction in the bycatch of albatrosses.  Fishing vessels that have used streamer lines to ward off seabirds say there is also a financial benefit: the streamer lines keep seabirds from swiping their bait, saving them money in the long run.

Habitat destruction from volcanic eruption also continues to pose a significant threat to short-tailed albatross at the primary breeding colony on Torishima Island.  The main colony site, Tsubamezaki, is on a sparsely vegetated steep slope of loose volcanic soil that is subject to severe erosion, particularly during monsoon rains.  A landslide at Tsubamezaki buried up to 10 chicks in February 2010 (Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, unpublished data).  Future eruptions or landslides could result in a significant loss to the primary nesting area and the population as a whole.  The threat is not predictable in time or magnitude; eruptions could be catastrophic or minor, and could occur at any time of year.  Climate changes may also affect vegetation and other characteristics of the short-tailed albatross breeding colony sites (65 FR 46643; NatureServe 2015; USFWS 2008).  Fortunately, the nesting habitats on Torishima Island, the Ogasawara Islands, and the Senkaku Islands are high enough above sea level (above 70 feet, 21.34 meters) to avoid inundation by projected sea level rise.  Models for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands indicate nesting habitat used by short-tailed albatross on low-lying Midway and Kure Atolls may be at risk due to sea level rise and increased storm frequency and intensity (Storlazzi et al. 2013).

Other threats to short-tailed albatross include environmental contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls and pesticides, and to toxic metals (e.g. mercury and lead) via atmospheric and oceanic transport and adverse effects of petroleum. Oil spills can occur in many parts of the marine range of the short-tailed albatross. Consumption of plastics may also be a factor affecting the species’ survival. Albatross often consume plastics at sea, presumably mistaking them for food items. The ingestion of plastic pieces can result in internal injury or mortality to the birds, and large volumes of ingested plastic can result in a reduction of gut volume available for food and water absorption, leading to malnutrition and dehydration (USFWS 2008).

According to the USFWS (2020) 5-year Review, the population of short-tailed albatross continued to grow with a current estimate of 7,365 individuals and a population growth rate of 8.9%., which is really something to celebrate.

Deguchi T., R.M. Suryan, K. Ozaki, J.F. Jacobs, F. Sato, N. Nakamura, and G.R. Balogh.  2014.  Early successes in translocation and hand-rearing of an endangered albatross for species conservation and island restoration.  Oryx 48:195-203.

O’Connor A.J., R.M. Suryan, K. Ozaki, F. Sato, and T. Deguchi.  2013.  Distributions and fishery associations of immature short-tailed albatrosses, Phoebastria albatrus, in the North Pacific.  Master’s Thesis.  Oregon State University.  87 pp.  65 FR 46643.                

Suryan R.M., K.S. Dietrich, E.F. Melvin, G.R. Balogh, F. Sato, and K. Ozaki.  2007b.  Migratory routes of short-tailed albatross: use of exclusive economic zones of North Pacific Rim countries and spatial overlap with commercial fisheries in Alaska.  Biological Conservation 137:450-460.        

[USFWS]. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2008. Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus) Recovery Plan. Anchorage, Alaska, 105 pp. Available online at: http://ecos.fws.gov/docs/recovery_plan/090520.pdf. Date accessed: November 2, 2015.

USFWS. 2020. 5-year review: summary and evaluation of the short-tailed albatross (Phoebastria albatrus). Anchorage Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, Anchorage, Alaska. 47 pp.

Scientific Name

Phoebastria albatrus
Common Name
Short-tailed Albatross
FWS Category
Birds
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