A Blue View: The Wandering Albatross

The science behind the wandering albatross' flight:

Published September 01, 2015

wandering-albatross

Image via WikiCommons.

With a wingspan reaching up to 11 feet 6 inches, the wandering albatross holds the record for largest wingspan of any living bird. But even more impressive than its unusual anatomy is its aerodynamic ability. Without flapping its wings once, this seabird can glide above the water’s surface for weeks, or even months, expending little to no energy.

It can travel 500 to 600 miles in a single day and maintain speeds higher than 79 miles per hour for more than eight hours. This physical feat has baffled scientists since at least the 1880s. With the help of high-precision GPS tracking, researchers discovered that—in addition to employing a unique elbow-lock system that allows them to keep their wings open at no energy cost—the wandering albatross also uses something called “dynamic soaring.”

Instead of flying in a straight line, the bird performs a series of up and down maneuvers. First, it initiates a windward climb, and then maneuvers a turn from windward to leeward at the flight’s peak. Next, it goes into a leeward descent and then finally curves from leeward to windward at the flight’s base. While this technique is clearly not an option for commercial planes, it could inspire the design of new and innovative drones. Watch the video below to learn more about the wandering albatross’s flight technique:

Episode Transcript

Perhaps you are familiar with the saying “an albatross around your neck.” This phrase, coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his 1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” refers to the association of the albatross with bad luck, mishap, struggle and worry.

But fevered sea dreams of ancient mariners aside, the albatross is magnificent, not only in size but in its incredible adaptation to the extreme dynamic, and—most important to the bird's flight—windy environment of the open ocean.

The wandering albatross, the largest of the 20-plus albatross species, has the largest wingspan of any bird on Earth.

Its wings are 11 feet long. That’s right: 11 feet. Move over, Big Bird. This is the big bird. It can weigh up to 22 pounds and eats mostly squid and fish, but it has been known to follow ocean-going boats in hopes of scavenging for galley scraps.

Why does it have such a wingspan? To ride strong sea breezes. Other than breeding, which it does on remote islands, the wandering albatross never sets its webbed feet on land. This animal spends its entire life—up to 50 years—in the air at sea.

For the 10 years before it reaches sexual maturity, it soars above the waves, seemingly effortlessly, gliding for hours on its giant wings. At times, it pauses and rests, bobbing on the waves.

It is a truly marine animal, as comfortable in the water and waves as a porpoise is.

It drinks saltwater. Without freshwater, most other animal species would dehydrate and die. But not the wandering albatross. So how does it survive on seawater?

Seabirds like albatrosses have their own desalinization system. They have adapted a salt gland over their eyes, with a structure like that of the kidney. The salt gland filters salt from their bloodstream. The extra salt is then excreted through grooves from the birds' nostrils to their bill and shaken off, back into the water.

A wandering albatross can fly more than 500 miles in one day without drinking freshwater or flapping its wings once. Over the course of its lifetime, it will fly a distance equivalent to the moon and back several times. It routinely maintains a speed of 50 miles per hour.

The albatross's ability to fly fast and far with minimal energy expenditure is called dynamic soaring. This practice has confounded and interested scientists and the aeronautics industry for years. Wouldn't it be great if our planes could do the same thing? Some engineers think so. And in fact, biomimicry is the process of using nature's blueprint to inform the building of our own devices.

The albatross has a fixed-elbow design of its wings, and its flight constantly curves into and out of the wind. Because of this, the albatross disproves the adage that the easiest way to go from Point A to Point B is a straight line. Wandering albatrosses never fly in a straight line. Instead of fighting the wind, they use it.

In fact, these remarkable seafarers are completely dependent on the wind. It’s no coincidence that they live in the far Southern Ocean, in an area of the globe known to sailors as "the Roaring 40s," where fierce, constant westerly winds predominate. Albatrosses are wind-powered animals.

Scientists who study albatrosses have noticed that, with the increase of wind velocity in the Southern Ocean due to global climate change, these birds themselves have become faster and are shifting their habitat slowly poleward, continuing the fascinating process of adaptation that goes back to their origins.

To see an albatross in flight and nesting, and to learn more about these natural aeronautical engineers, visit aqua.org/ablueview. This is John Racanelli of the National Aquarium for WYPR, your NPR news station.

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