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The Wandering Albatross

The Science Behind The Wandering Albatross’s Flight

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:


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