At the Limits of Ocean and Air
Published: January 20, 2005
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ost humans have never seen a gray-headed albatross or, for that matter, any albatross. And for good reason. The gray-headed albatross breeds in grassy tufts set high on the cliffs of remote islands in the seas just north of Antarctica. But the bird's true habitat is the tumultuous air above those seas. In April 1999, scientists fixed tiny locaters to the albatrosses in a cohort breeding on Bird Island, near South Georgia. The data retrieved - a map of the migratory patterns of 22 birds - will help scientists understand where albatrosses are most likely to cross paths with fishing boats, which often hook and kill the birds with baited hooks floating just under the water's surface. That could make all the difference to this species, which belongs to the most threatened family of birds on the planet.
This research also turned up some surprising glimpses of how albatrosses live. It was already known that they could fly at astonishingly high speeds with Antarctic storms at their backs, and scientists had guessed that the birds were capable of spending great lengths of time aloft. But half the birds in this study flew around the world - as much as 14,000 miles - and one of them did so in 46 days. This implies an ability simply to live on the wing, to rest and forage while making constant headway toward the east and, ultimately, their breeding grounds.
As so often happens, the more we come to know about the life of any individual species, the better we understand how extensive the human impact on this planet really is. Few things seem more remote from our daily lives than the peregrinations of an albatross in the southernmost latitudes. And yet those birds, when they feed, are all too often the immediate victims of our appetite for fish.
It's hard to say how many albatrosses are lost to legal and illegal long-lining ships, which trail enormous numbers of baited hooks behind them. But some estimates say they kill as many as 100,000 birds per year. The long-lining fishing fleet is overharvesting the air as well as the sea.
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