Phoebastria irroratawaved albatross

Geographic Range

Waved albatrosses spend their time in the ocean between the west coasts of Peru and Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. They come to the small island of Isla Espanola in the Galapagos to breed along the south/southeast coast. There have been reports of waved albatrosses breeding at Isla de la Plata, an island about 20 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, but these sightings are rare. The waved albatross has been spotted in Panama and Columbia, however they are rarely seen north of the equator. The breeding range has changed in the past few decades. Two inland breeding colonies on Isla Espanola disappeared between 1971 and 1994. The central breeding colony is located in the middle of the south coast and projects inward towards the center of the island. The majority of breeding occurs along the southern coasts which includes the far west Punta Suarez, as far south as South Point, and as far northeast as Punta Cevallos, with small isolated colonies inland west from Punta Cevallos. (Anderson, et al., 2002; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Douglas, 1998; Huyvaert, 2006; Jimenez-Uzcategui and Anderson, 2006; Mouritsen, et al., 2003)


Waved albatrosses are pelagic birds, spending their lives in the open ocean between the western coasts of Ecuador and Peru and the Galapagos Islands. When breeding, they nest in areas with limited plant life on hardened lava pools surrounded by boulders on a single island, Isla Espanola. More recently, they have been spotted nesting in thick brushwood, grasses, and shrubbery as the habitat has changed due to the eradication of invasive feral goats (Capra hircus). Breeding colonies are found from just above sea level to 215 meters. (Anderson, et al., 2002; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Douglas, 1998; Huyvaert, 2006; Mouritsen, et al., 2003)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 215 m
    0.00 to 705.38 ft

Physical Description

These birds are light to dark brown in color on the abdomen with grey in transition spots as it changes to solid white at the head and neck. Their feet and legs are a blue tint, their eyes are dark brown, and they have a mustard yellow bill. Juvenile birds are similar to adults in color except that the head is more white than yellow/grey. Immature chicks are covered in a uniform brown plumage with a dark brown bill. The adults stand just shy of a meter in height (80 to 90 cm). The waved part of its name comes from the wave like pattern on the feathers of adult birds near the nape of the neck as the color transitions to brown. They weigh approximately 2.5 to 4 kilograms with males being considerably heavier than females. Because of their large size, they are clumsy on land and flying is possible but difficult. They need a running start and rely heavily on winds to launch them into the air. Once in the air, they have been described as being extremely graceful. They have a wingspan between 220 and 250 cm in length with males being larger than females. (Dunning Jr., 2008; Anderson, et al., 2007; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Dunning Jr., 2008)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    2.5 to 4.0 kg
    5.51 to 8.81 lb
  • Range length
    80 to 90 cm
    31.50 to 35.43 in
  • Range wingspan
    220 to 250 cm
    86.61 to 98.43 in


Waved albatrosses are monogamous, mating for life. Male waved albatrosses arrive at Isla Espanola around late March and wait for their mates. Their courtship ritual is loud and boisterous. They face each other and do a series of honks, bows, and beak touching and chattering. Every few minutes, they circle each other and continue the dance. The dance may last several minutes. Newly coupled birds and established couples that had failed reproduction in the last season dance longer. After mating, the female lays a single egg. Waved albatrosses are cooperative breeders. They temporarily help others raise chicks or incubate eggs while biological parents are away. (Anderson, 1988; Anderson, 2006; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Dubois, 1998)

Waved albatrosses breed once a year and lay a single egg from April to June. They are the only albatross species that exclusively breeds in the tropics. Their nesting sites are made of multiple materials, including dirt, pebbles, and vegetation.

They have a mobile incubation system, which means they move with their eggs and can move as much as 40 meters in a single incubation. This can result in egg mortality if cracked or wedged on a rock. The reason for the mobile incubation is still unknown. Theories for egg movement include a detrimental neighbor or predator, and higher chance of "temporary adoption," when another waved albatross incubates the egg while the biological parent forages for food.

If abandoned, usually due to predation or wedged on a rock, the young in the egg typically dies, even if the parent ventures back. There is a small window of time, around 6 days, where the egg could survive if the parents return. This mortality is responsible for at least 10 and up to 80 percent of all reproductive failures. The farther the parents move the egg, the higher chance of hatching failure.

The incubation period of eggs is around 65 days. Birth weight upon hatching is about 273 grams. It takes chicks just over 5 months to fledge. When they do fledge, they fly off the island and stay out to sea for 4 to 6 years (average = 5) until it reaches sexual maturity. Once sexually mature, they then fly to Isla Espanola and starts the breeding process. There have been sightings of waved albatrosses of only 2 years of age that were non-breeding on the island. There have been reports of infidelity by the female partner, but even so, the pair never splits. The male is not territorial when it comes to this infidelity. This leaves the male to sometimes care for a chick that isn't his. Their monogamous relationship can be detrimental to the species if one partner dies, leaving the other partner without a way to breed. Finding a new partner has not been documented if the old partner dies. (Anderson, et al., 2007; Anderson, 1988; Anderson, 2006; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Douglas, 1998; Dubois, 1998; Huyvaert, et al., 2005; Mouritsen, et al., 2003)

  • Breeding interval
    Waved albatrosses breed once a year during the Galapagos dry season.
  • Breeding season
    April to June
  • Range eggs per season
    0 to 1
  • Average time to hatching
    2 months
  • Average fledging age
    167 days
  • Average time to independence
    167 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    4 to 6 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    4 to 6 years

Once the egg is laid, both parents will rotate shifts when incubating the egg. A single parent will incubate as long as two weeks while their partner finds food. They do this until the chick hatches. If an egg is abandoned, an adoptive couple who had failed to breed or weren’t breeding that particular season may incubate the egg. However, the relationship between the egg and adoptive parents is short-lived. In several cases, the adoptive parents will only incubate for a single day until they too abandon the egg. About half of the abandoned eggs left by the adoptive parents were then re-incubated by a returned biological parent. A theory behind this behavior is albatross “babysitting” while the biological parents are away. Huyvaert et al. (2005) reported only two cases of egg adoption that continued until hatching without the return of the biological parents. The incubation period is around 65 days. When the chicks hatch, they are brown, fluffy, and precocial. The chicks depend on their parents for food until they've fledged and taken flight themselves. The time to fledging and independence is about 5 months and they generally leave the island by mid-December, often while their parents are foraging. Once they've taken flight, they do not associate with their parents again. (Anderson, et al., 2007; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Huyvaert and Parker, 2010; Huyvaert, et al., 2005)


The longest observed lifespan for a waved albatross is about 40 years. The bird was tagged in the 1970’s and was caught again 1997, noting its age was 37 years. However, 40 years may be an underestimate of their lifespan. Several other albatross species have lifespans that have been noted in the 50-year range and this suggests that the waved albatross could have a similar long life expectancy. Waved albatrosses are not kept in captivity. (Anderson, et al., 2008; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Douglas, 1997)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    40 (high) years


Waved albatrosses are migratory birds that spend only their breeding period on land. From mid-December to mid-March, they are located towards the Peruvian and Ecuadorian coasts. They are a terricolous species that nest on the ground. They are most active during the day, especially when foraging, and spend the night hours incubating or floating on the water. Because of their limited breeding range, waved albatrosses nest in colonies along the coasts. They are not very social except with their mates. Their food foraging behavior out in the open ocean makes them natatorial by nature. Their mating dance with the honks, calls, and beak clattering is an important behavior worth mentioning again. As a non-aggressive species, they do not defend a particular territory. (Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015)

Home Range

Waved albatrosses nest in about the same spot year after year. With mobile incubation, they rarely stay in one spot and their home range could be described as about a forty square meter patch of shrubs, boulders, and grasslands. When not breeding, they have no specified home range. (Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015)

Communication and Perception

Waved albatrosses rely on acoustic communication, tactile communication, and visual perception. They communication by making click and honking noises, especially when courting. They use their vision while doing their mating dance. Their movements are synchronous with their head sways, bows, and beak tapping. As for orienteering, some birds can sense the Earth’s magnetic fields using magnetic crystals in their nose and/or a quantum chemical, light mediation, proton pump, or free radical mechanism of the eye. In waved albatrosses, Mouritsen (2003) discovered that orienteering in the above ways is unlikely, but can’t be ruled out. Waved albatrosses flew in a straight path regardless of the strong magnets attached to their heads. It has been suggested that they use a sun compass or olfactory cues instead, considering the olfactory part of their brain takes up 37% of the volume. (Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Merlen, 1998; Mouritsen, et al., 2003; Nevitt, 2008)

  • Other Communication Modes
  • duets

Food Habits

These birds mainly feed on bony fish, sharks, rays, crustaceans, and squid. They may forage at night when the squid are near the surface. This could provide an easier meal for them because squid and fish rise to the surface at night. However, research has shown that they forage and are in flight more during the daylight hours.

Waved albatrosses sometimes harass other species into giving up prey items, called kleptoparasitism. They have been seen stealing food from Peruvian boobies (Sula variegata). They aren't aggressive towards the boobies and don't attack them once they're in flight. Simply walking behind the boobies seemed sufficient stress for the boobies to expel their food. It may be a crucial scavenging technique but more observations are needed to confirm. When in the chick-brooding period, waved albatrosses primarily stay within 100 km of the nest site and are more common along the shallow Galapagos continental shelf to deeper waters. When the chicks are young, the parents alternate between short foraging trips (beneficial to the chick) and longer trips (beneficial to the parent). As the chick ages, becomes more independent, and can tolerate less frequent meal delivery, the parents are able to venture out to more productive waters for foraging. (Anderson, et al., 2002; Anderson, et al., 2005; Anderson, 2006; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Duffy, 1980; Merlen, 1998)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • body fluids
  • carrion
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans


Waved albatrosses have many predators and most of them prey upon the eggs. Some predators include Espanola mockingbirds (Mimus macdonaldi), humans (Homo sapiens), Galapagos hawks (Buteo galapagoenisis), and Galapagos owls (Asio flammeus galapagoenisis). The larger predators take the eggs and chicks for consumption. Their only form of anti-predator adaptation is possible cryptic coloration on their lower abdomen with the dark brown/grey feathers matching the dark brown/grey boulders. (Anderson, et al., 2002; Anderson, et al., 2005; Anderson, et al., 2007; Anderson, 1988; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Huyvaert, et al., 2005)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic
  • Known Predators
    • Espanola mockingbirds (Mimus macdonaldi)
    • humans (Homo sapiens)
    • Galapagos hawks (Buteo galapagoenisis)
    • Galapagos owls (Asio flammeus galapagoenisis)

Ecosystem Roles

Mosquitoes, lice, soft ticks, and hippoboscid flies are ectoparasites. Ectoparasites are a major cause of egg abandonment, second only to mobile incubation. (Anderson, 1988; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Waved albatrosses are caught in longlining from fishing boats. Males are killed more often due to their higher chance of success in stealing bait (and therefore more attempts). Some fishermen keep the birds, dead or alive, for their feathers or for human consumption. (Anderson, 1988; Anderson, 2006; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Waved albatrosses often try to steal the bait from longlining fishermen. This is a minor loss to the fishing industry, but often results in injury or death to albatrosses. (Anderson, 1988; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Jahncke, 2001; Jimenez-Uzcategui and Anderson, 2006; Merlen, 1998)

Conservation Status

Waved albatrosses are listed as "critically endangered" on the IUCN red list due to their extremely limited breeding range and recent decline in adult population. This decline is due to parasitism, habitat destruction, predator introduction, and human interaction. The biggest factor in the decline is in the form of longline fisheries. They attack the bait used by fishermen and get caught in the hooks and nets. Anderson (2001) found that one percent of 2,500 birds that had been banded ended up on fishing boats within a 12-month period. The annual adult survival rate has declined from 95.3 to 92.5 percent, a serious decline for a long-lived species. Males are at greater risk of death because they are more successful at catching bait in the longline gill nets and therefore go after it more often. Male loss generates breeding problems due to essential parental partnership in raising the chick. Research has shown that this bias only occurs in adulthood and there are currently 1.188 females for every male. Waved albatrosses are also intentionally harvested for consumption and the feather trade. In 1970-1971, Harris (1971) calculated the population size to be around 12,000 pairs. That number rose in 1994 when Douglas (1994) found an estimated 15,600 to 18,000 pairs. In 2001, a third population count was done by Anderson (2001) with about 34,700 pairs found. No additional whole-species counts have been attempted since 2001, but a 2007 survey by Anderson suggested that breeding pairs were on the decline due to breeding colony disappearances. However, with the removal of invasive goats (Capra hircus) and subsequent regeneration of vegetative cover, it's probable that not all breeding pairs are being accounted for in these recent surveys. Waved albatrosses are protected by the Galapagos Reserve but it does not extend their entire foraging range. Ecuador and Peru entered into negotiations to help with conservation and the Agreement and Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) resulted. It was enacted in 2001 but has not been enforced as of 2006. While waved albatrosses are protected by national and international laws and agreements, they need an international pledge to protect them from extinction. The current reserves and protections should be extended to include the entire range of the birds. This should include hunting bans to curve intentional harvesting and to prohibit fishing in certain parts of the archipelago. Upon researching Isla de Plata as a second potential breeding site, it was concluded that there were several problems with the island in terms of creating an alternate nesting site. The eggs are preyed upon. The eggs and young chicks are often taken by humans illegally. The island is not currently protected under any conservation law. Wildlife experts have concluded that preventing adult death would have a greater impact than saving eggs alone. If the species' long lifespan is sustained and reproductive mortality issues are addressed, the species has a chance to recover. In CITES, the US Migratory Bird Act, US Federal List, and the State of Michigan List, the birds were not listed or were of no special status. (Anderson, et al., 2002; Anderson, et al., 2007; Anderson, et al., 2008; Anderson, 2006; Birdlife International, 2014; Birdlife International, 2015; Douglas, 1997; Huyvaert, 2006; Huyvaert, et al., 2005; Jahncke, 2001; Jimenez-Uzcategui and Anderson, 2006; Merlen, 1998; Powell and Gibbs, 1995)


Dennise Meyers (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, April Tingle (editor), Radford University, Emily Clark (editor), Radford University, Cari Mcgregor (editor), Radford University, Jacob Vaught (editor), Radford University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


flesh of dead animals.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

to jointly display, usually with sounds in a highly coordinated fashion, at the same time as one other individual of the same species, often a mate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

island endemic

animals that live only on an island or set of islands.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).


an animal that mainly eats fish

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.


an animal that mainly eats dead animals

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


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Birdlife International, 2014. "Phoebastria irrorata" (On-line). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed January 27, 2015 at

Birdlife International, 2015. "Waved albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)" (On-line). Species factsheet: Phoebastra irrorata. Accessed February 07, 2015 at

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Duffy, D. 1980. Patters of piracy by peruvian seabirds: A depth hypothesis. Ibis, 122/4: 521-525.

Dunning Jr., J. 2008. CRC Handbook of Avian Body Masses. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.

Huyvaert, K. 2006. Absence of population genetic structure among breeding colonies of the waved albatross. The Condor, 108/2: 440-445.

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