(Wired.com) -- The famed albatrosses of Midway Atoll took a beating from the tsunami, but their population will survive, say biologists on the islands.
There are, of course, more pressing concerns in the tsunami's aftermath than wildlife, and some might balk at paying attention to birds right now. But compassion isn't a zero-sum game, and Midway Atoll is one of Earth's natural treasures: 2.4 square miles of coral ringing a deep-sea mountaintop halfway between Honolulu and Tokyo, a flyspeck of dry land that's home to several million seabirds.
Roughly two-thirds of all Laysan albatrosses live on Midway's two islands, as do one-third of all black-footed albatrosses, and about 60 people. Many of them work at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. They had time to prepare for the tsunami, which struck late on the night of March 10. Nobody was hurt; after the waves receded, they checked on the wildlife.
An estimated 1,000 Laysan adults were killed, and tens of thousands of chicks, said Refuge official Barry Stieglitz. Those figures represent just the first wave of mortality, as adults who were at sea when the tsunami hit may be unable to find their young on returning. Chicks now wandering on shore may be doomed but in the long run, the population as a whole will recover.
"The loss of all these chicks is horrible. It's going to represent a significant portion of this year's Laysan albatross hatch. But in terms of overall population health, the most important animals are the proven, breeding adults," said Stieglitz. "In the long term, the greatest impact would be if we lost more adults. The population should come through this just fine."
On a sadder note, however, one of the wandering chicks is the first short-tailed albatross to hatch on Midway in decades. The species was hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century, its feathers so fashionable that a population of millions was reduced to a handful of juveniles who stayed at sea during the carnage. (Young short-tailed albatrosses live in the open ocean for several years before mating.) About 3,000 of the species now survive, and a few have recently made a home on Midway.
"If the chick lost one parent, it could be in danger. If it lost both, it's definitely out of luck," Stieglitz said.
Another well-known avian denizen of Midway is Wisdom, a 60-year-old female Laysan albatross. Banded for identification in 1956, Wisdom is the oldest known wild bird. In February, she was spotted rearing a new chick.
"When I gaze at Wisdom, I feel as though I've entered a time machine," wrote U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Klavitter in an email. "My mind races to the past and all the history she has observed through time."
Midway's Laysan albatrosses feed in waters off Alaska, flying about 50,000 miles each year as adults. Wisdom has flown between 2 and 3 million miles in her lifetime, compensating for age with smarts and efficiency. She hasn't been spotted since the tsunami, but Stieglitz said the biologists haven't looked for her yet. Wisdom's nest is on high ground. They're not too worried about her.
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