On February 1, the world’s oldest known wild bird became a mother once again when her chick hatched on the Midway Atoll in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean.
Scientists first attached a red identifying ankle band to Wisdom, a Laysan albatross, in 1956. She’s now at least 70 years old and has outlived the researcher who first banded her, reports Nina Wu of the Honolulu Star Advertiser.
Just shy of 20 years ago, scientists thought the maximum age of the Laysan albatross was around 40 years, reports Kim Steutermann Rogers for National Geographic. But when Chandler Robbins, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who first banded her, recaptured the bird to replace the tattered ankle band in 2002, Wisdom was 51 and instantly vaulted into position as the oldest wild bird ever recorded.
In fact, Wisdom may be even older than 70. She was conservatively estimated to be five-years-old when scientists first recorded her vitals, but it hasn’t stopped her from laying eggs in eight out of the last 11 years, per National Geographic. The septuagenarian albatross has been raising chicks with her mate Akeakamai since at least 2010, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Laysan albatross typically partner up for life, but Wisdom has had to find several new mates after she outlived her former beaus.
“We don’t know exactly how many chicks she’s raised, but certainly at least 35 based on what we know about her recent years performance,” Beth Flint, a biologist with the Marine National Monuments of the Pacific, tells Hawaii News Now.
When Wisdom and Akeakamai arrived at their nest site on Midway Atoll in late November, researchers like Flint were excited and relieved. “Each year that Wisdom returns, we learn more about how long seabirds can live and raise chicks,” Flint tells the Honolulu Star Advertiser.
To get their new chick strong enough to head out to sea by summertime, Wisdom and Akeakamai will take turns at the nest while the other uses their seven-foot wingspan to traverse the ocean in search of food to bring back and regurgitate for the chick.
In Hawaii, Wisdom’s significance also goes beyond her advanced age. Indigenous Hawaiian culture associates the Laysan albatross, or mōlī, with the god of rain and agriculture, Lono, according to National Geographic.
Midway, two tiny islands that once housed a World War II military base, is the nesting site for nearly three-quarters of the world’s Laysan albatrosses as well as 40 percent of black-footed albatrosses and some 20 other bird species. But this vital habitat is threatened by climate change-driven sea level rise while the albatross themselves are being killed by plastic pollution and, since 2015, a scourge of invasive house mice, per the USFWS.
Not normally considered dangerous predators, the mice were actually killing some of the albatross, which are so dedicated to their eggs that they scarcely move even as they’re being eaten alive by mice.
Because albatross only lay one egg each year, every individual chick makes a significant contribution to growing the population, making Wisdom a rockstar for her species.
Flint says Wisdom’s annual arrival and growing notoriety has also made her a valuable symbol for conservation.
“Her return not only inspires bird lovers everywhere, but helps us better understand how we can protect these graceful seabirds and the habitat they need to survive into the future,” she tells the Star Advertiser.