Writer’s Reference Guide: Albatross

The albatross is a well-known figure in literature thanks to Coelridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. How much do you actually know about these seabirds? Check out some quick facts about the birds that can fly for days and live for sixty years or more!

Name. Albatross is used to refer to any large sea bird of the Diomedeidae family. Currently this family includes four genera:

  • Great Albatrosses (Diomedea)
  • North Pacific Albatrosses (Phoebastria)
  • Mollymawks (Thalassarche)
  • Sooty Albatrosses (Phoebetria)

Area. Albatrosses only come on land during their breeding seasons. Most of these colonies are made on oceanic islands. Their range covers most of the Southern Hemisphere from Australia and South Africa to Antartica and in the Northern Hemisphere covers the Pacific from the eastern coasts of the United States to the western coats of Russia and China.

Estimated ranges of the albatross

Description. Albatrosses posses large wings which taper towards the tips to enable them to glide long distances. Their wingspans may reach up to 12 feet (or 3.7 meters) to assist their gliding.  Many species have patterns featuring white, black, brown and gray. Because juveniles often look so vastly different from adults, identification and classification is a hotly debated topic.

History. Fossil records indicate that albatrosses began evolving around 70 million years ago in the Cretaceous period. Roughly 44 million years ago they began to diverge into the forge groups accepted today.

Classification has been hotly debated since the 1850’s when Henrich Reichan divided them into four genera. Following this there were multiple rearrangements which culiminated in a total of twelve genera by 1965. Yet another reclassification dividing the albatross into two genera and finally in 1996 a DNA study of the fourteen accepted species returned the genera to four.

In modern times species classifications continues to be debated. Of the 21 generally accepted species, 20 are listed as concerned, threatened or endangered.

Many of the threats to the albatrosses are a direct result of human activity, beginning in the early 1900’s when many breeding colonies were raided for feathers and meat. By 1949 the aggressive harvesting resulted in the near extinction of the Short-Tailed Albatross.  Today, threats to wild populations include pollution and large-scale fishing activities.

Superstitions and Myths. A well-known figure among sailors, there is a superstition that the birds are the spirits of dead sailors. Harming one is thought to bring about bad luck.

Hawaiian mythology also holds the albatross in high regard. One legend speaks of how an albatross tempts Lalo-hanoua to eat sacred apples. As a result she is eventually driven mad and turned into a seabird herself.

Albatrosses also play a part in Māori legends, where the albatross Rereroa teaches a taniwha how to fly, in turn creating the flat top of Mana Island.

Symbolism. When traveling by sea, the albatross is taken as a good omen, but in context may also represent a difficult burden or guilt. Because they generally struggle to take flight without a cliff to assist themselves, they may also symbolize foolishness or clumsiness.

An albatross in flight

Britannica – albatross
Wikipedia – Albatross
Smithsonian – The Amazing Albatrosses, Kennedy Warne
Live Science – Albatross
British Antarctic Society – Albatross
Friend of the Earth – Save the Albatross
IUCN Red List
Astonishing Legends – Long Live the Albatross
University of Canterbury Literature Review – Tears of the Albatross, Ana Pallesen
Sacred Texts – The Kane Worship
Mātauranga Māori – Awarua, the taniwha of Porirua

Image Credits
Claudia Kirchberger from Pixabay
jmarti20 from Pixabay


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