Southern royal albatross

Diomedea epomophora Lesson, 1825

New Zealand status: Endemic

Conservation status: Naturally Uncommon

Other names: toroa

Geographical variation: Nil

Southern royal albatross. Adult on water showing bill and wing markings. Kaikoura pelagic, October 2008. Image © Duncan Watson by Duncan Watson

Southern royal albatross. Adult on water showing bill and wing markings. Kaikoura pelagic, October 2008. Image © Duncan Watson by Duncan Watson

The southern royal albatross (toroa) is one of the great albatross species, with a wing-span in excess of 3 m and weighing approximately 9 kg. Endemic to New Zealand, the majority of the southern royal breeding population is found on subantarctic Campbell Island, with smaller numbers on the Auckland Islands. Birds breed biennially as it takes nearly a year to rear the single chick. Non-breeding birds and juveniles cross the Southern Ocean to feed in South American waters before returning to the breeding areas by circumnavigating the globe. Young birds begin returning to the islands at 3-4 years of age to find mates, and generally start breeding at 6-12 years, and live into their 40s. Southern royals are closely related to the northern royal albatross, which breeds at Taiaroa Head and the Chatham Islands.

Identification

The southern royal albatross is the largest of the albatrosses, rivalled only by the true wandering albatross. It has a white body and black wings and white tail. The leading edge of the inner upper wing becomes whiter with age, especially in males. The robust bill is light pink with a creamy tip and with a black cutting edge to the upper mandible. Juveniles have blacker wings than adults and white bodies with black flecking on the back, flanks, crown and tail.

Voice: the ‘sky-call’, a high-pitched screaming bray, is given during displays by socializing birds (courting birds, breeders and gatherings of immature birds known as ‘gams’). Displays may culminate in yapping or clucking.

Similar species: northern royal albatrosses have a solid black upper wing, and a dark fore-carpal on the underwing also is distinctive. Juvenile northern royal albatrosses have a greater amount of black flecking dorsally. Wandering albatrosses (D. exulans) have a pinker bill and no black cutting edge. The wings of wandering albatrosses also whiten with age, but from the centre of the wing, rather than the leading edge.

Distribution and habitat

Over 99% of the southern royal albatross population breeds on Campbell Island, and a small proportion on the Auckland Islands (Enderby, Adams and Auckland), with a few birds apparently hybridizing with northern royal albatrosses at Taiaroa Head. On Campbell Island, nests are scattered amongst tussock grasslands and megaherb fields at mid-elevation (180-350 m). Birds forage over the continental shelf and inner slope of southern New Zealand and the Campbell plateau, southern Chile, Uruguay and Argentina where they scavenge for squid and fish.

Population

Approximately 8500 pairs of southern royal albatross breed each year on Campbell Island and <100 pairs on the Auckland Islands.

Threats and conservation

Southern royal albatrosses on Enderby Island were extirpated by humans in the 1800s and on Campbell Island the population was severely depleted during the sheep farming era (1890-1931) by burning of vegetation, grazing, degradation of nesting habitat and direct predation of birds by people, and probably farm dogs. Once the islands were protected in the 1950s-60s, introduced mammals were gradually removed from the islands. The population recovered during the second half of the 20th Century but appears to have levelled off during the early 2000s. Southern royal albatrosses are vulnerable to fisheries bycatch in New Zealand and South American waters, as well as in transit between these areas. See New Zealand fisheries by-catch information here.

Breeding

Southern royal albatrosses are monogamous, with long-term partnerships, although a small proportion divorce. Birds mature at 6-12 years of age. The breeding pattern is biennial, and successful breeders take one year off between breeding attempts. A single egg is laid in November-December, chicks hatch in February and fledge in October. Both adults of a pair share incubation and rearing. Nests on Campbell Island are dispersed at 3.1 nests/ha, although occasionally they are only a few metres apart.

Behaviour and ecology

Southern royal albatrosses are generally solitary at sea, young birds gather to display in gams on the breeding grounds. A variety of postures and calls are used in agonistic and sexual displays, including aggressive bill snapping, clapping and gulping. Gamming and pair displays include: sky-calling with wings outstretched and head and neck stretched upward, croaking, yapping, billing, head shaking and whining. Partners mutual preen at the nest.

Food

Southern royal albatrosses scavenge post-spawning cephalopods (squid and pelagic octopuses), fish, crustaceans and salps. Food is mostly seized from the water’s surface, or by shallow plunges beneath the surface.

Websites

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Royal_Albatross

http://www.doc.govt.nz/conservation/native-animals/birds/sea-and-shore-birds/albatrosses/royal-albatross-toroa/facts/

http://www.doc.govt.nz/conservation/land-and-freshwater/offshore-islands/new-zealands-subantarctic-islands/campbell-island/monitoring-southern-royal-albatross-on-campbell-island/

http://www.arkive.org/southern-royal-albatross/diomedea-epomophora/

http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3954

http://fs.fish.govt.nz/Page.aspx?pk=37&dk=4&sc=XRA

References

Moore, P.J.; Bettany, S.M. 2005. Band recoveries of southern royal albatrosses (Diomedea epomophora) from Campbell Island, 1943-2003. Notornis 52: 195-205

Moore, P.J.; Larsen, E.J.; Charteris, M.; Pryde, M., 2012. Southern royal albatross on Campbell Island/Motu Ihupuku – solving a band injury problem and population survey, 2004–2008. DOC Research and Development Series 333. Department of Conservation, Wellington.http://doc.org.nz/Documents/science-and-technical/drds333entire.pdf

Recommended citation

Moore, P.J. 2013. Southern royal albatross. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz

Southern royal albatross

Social structure
monogamous
Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Nest type
raised platform
Nest description
A circular mound of vegetation maintained during the season by adding new material.
Nest height (min)
0.08 m
Nest height (max)
0.3 m
Maximum number of successful broods
1
Clutch size (mean)
1
Mean egg dimensions (length)
126.5 mm
Mean egg dimensions (width)
78.5 mm
Egg colour
Creamy white
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Interval between eggs in a clutch
Not applicable days
Incubation behaviour
shared
Incubation length (mean)
79 days
Nestling type
altricial
Nestling period (mean)
241 days
Nestling period (min)
224 days
Nestling period (max)
253 days
Age at fledging (mean)
241 days
Age at fledging (min)
224 days
Age at fledging (max)
253 days
Age at independence (mean)
241 days
Age at independence (min)
224 days
Age at independence (max)
253 days
Age at first breeding (typical)
12 years
Age at first breeding (min)
6 years
Maximum longevity
43 plus years
Maximum dispersal
Circum-polar travelling to South America New Zealand return