Can Wisdom save the world's albatross population?

A Laysan albatross known as Wisdom -- at least 63 years old -- rears a chick on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Story highlights

  • Researchers are astounded by a 63-year-old albatross known as 'Wisdom' that is still breeding
  • Some 19 of the 22 species of albatross face extinction
  • Around 100,000 albatrosses are killed by longline fishing each year
  • Wisdom offers hope for global albatross conservation efforts

On an island nestled away in the North Pacific Ocean, thousands of albatrosses are dying.

They see colorful bits of plastic in the ocean and confuse them for food. Many of them fly back with toothbrushes, lighters and other plastic products to feed their young. The end result is grim.

And that's just part of the problem.

According to a study, "Facing Extinction: The World's Rarest Birds and the Race to Save Them," around 100,000 albatrosses are killed by longline fishing each year. That's almost 300 every 24 hours.

This form of fishing is a commercial technique that uses huge lines -- often kilometers long -- with deadly baited hooks strung out by fleets of fishing boats. Some barely survive increasingly extreme weather conditions, while others die because of starvation due to declining fish stocks, as well as marine pollution and other predators.

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Nineteen of the 22 species of albatross face extinction, according to the University of Southern California.

But there is hope.

Wisdom is a Laysan albatross, a species that usually inhabits the Northern Pacific, and is thought to be around 63 years old. She's exciting biologists because of her advanced years -- the average life span of a Laysan albatross is 12 to 40 years old. Scientists hope this is good news for the population.

"She's such an inspiration," said Amanda Fortin, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Wisdom is one bird that has captured the hearts of people around the world because she represents an entire imperiled species."

What makes Wisdom even more special is that she is still mating -- she has raised at least 35 chicks in her lifetime and has nested consecutively every year since 2008, according to Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the North American Bird Banding Program at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. They even set up a camera and recorded her when she laid an egg in December.

"She's such a celebrity now," said Peterjohn.

She delivered her youngest chick just a few weeks ago, which raises eyebrows because albatrosses are known to have low reproductive rates. If they live to see adulthood, they typically only breed every two years.

Researchers are still trying to determine how she is able to have babies and why she has lived longer than others.

A rare breed

Biologists spotted Wisdom in 2001 at Midway Atoll, a national wildlife refuge north of the Hawaiian archipelago. But the red band they discovered attached to one of her feet amazed them. It was soon revealed that Chandler Robbins, a former ornithologist at the Patuxent Center, placed the band on her in 1956 as a tracking device.

"I was really surprised. I didn't expect to ever find her again," said Robbins. "Finding her made me realize that these birds live longer than expected."

Even in her golden years, Wisdom's thick coat of white feathers that trail off to gray and black appears untouched. Her astounded supporters periodically capture photographs of her where her eyes give off a mysterious glare that reveal a world of experience no one may ever know.

Wisdom's exact birthday is unknown but it is safe to say that she has at least lived through the Vietnam War, says Peterjohn.

"I've run out of adjectives to describe this whole situation. If you relate it to human terms you'll understand. She is 63 years old, still having babies, still successfully raising young and spending the rest of the time wandering out on the Pacific Ocean -- I don't know what adjective you can use to describe it," said Peterjohn. "I mean 'amazing' doesn't even do it justice."

The famous bird has aroused so much interest that Darcy Pattison and Kitty Harvill wrote and illustrated Wisdom, The Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Disasters for over 60 Years in her honor.

'There's a lot we can do'

Fortin learned about Wisdom several years ago via email and immediately fell in love. She eventually began writing for the Service's Pacific region Tumblr blog that monitored Wisdom's progress and eventually began writing posts where she discussed some fundamental steps necessary to preserve the almost-extinct albatross species.

"Imagine if we all took a cue from Wisdom and used our seemingly small steps to combat climate change or contribute to conservation? What begins as a single idea can hatch, and fledge into stronger, more numerous acts that take flight and make a dramatic difference. This spirited albatross has inspired and amused people around the globe for decades. Hopefully, she has shared some Wisdom too," she wrote in a post on the blog late last year.

Some in the longline fishing industry -- largely blamed for deaths of many albatrosses -- are implementing new techniques that are having a positive impact, said Pete Leary , a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"They are making a difference. There's a long way to go but we continue to see increases in North Pacific albatross populations," he said.

But Wisdom's story offers hope for albatrosses.

"It's just flabbergasting that a bird that old can live a normal life and raise young," said Peterjohn. "It'll be really fascinating to see how long she lives."