Last month, Wisdom, the world’s oldest known wild bird, laid an egg at the age of 67, reports Christine Dell’Amore at National Geographic. Since 2006, the Laysan albatross, has raised and fledged at least nine chicks with her life mate Akeakamai, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Together, they return each year to Midway Atoll in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to nest and raise their young. It’s believed that over her lifetime Wisdom has likely raised 30 to 35 albatross chicks, outliving several of her mates.
“It’s just unprecedented that we have a bird that we know of that’s 67 years old and still reproducing,” Kate Toniolo, deputy superintendent for the marine national monument tells Dell’Amore. “It makes you wonder—could there be a bird two nests away from Wisdom that's even older?”
On December 10, 1956, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Chandler Robbins first banded Wisdom (who was named much later in on). As Dell’Amore reports, at the time she was just one of thousands of nesting Laysan and black-footed albatrosses that Robbins banded to study why the birds sometimes collided with Navy aircraft stationed on the island.
Robbins returned to Midway Atoll in 2002, almost 50 years later, hoping to see if some of his banded birds still remained. One female bird was indeed still there; he named her Wisdom due to her age.
Though Robbins passed away last year, fascination with Wisdom has endured. Each year, wildlife watchers wait for word of Wisdom's return to the nesting grounds—even eco-celebrities, like marine biologist Sylvia Earle, have paid Wisdom visits.
While Wisdom is an inspirational animal story, she is also the poster-matron for how vulnerable her species actually is. According to the USFWS 70 percent of all Laysan albatrosses in the world nest on Midway Atoll, with smaller breeding colonies at 15 other sites in the Pacific. Without a wildlife refuge or other protection for their nesting grounds, they may not exist at all. And a major disaster, like a tsunami during nesting season, could be a devastating blow to a population listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN, which maintains the global endangered species list.
Unlike species like sea turtles, which lay tons of eggs with the goal that one or two make it to adulthood, the Laysan albatross lays one egg per year and puts lots of time and resources into raising a single chick. This makes successful breeding even more critical.
"An albatross egg is important to the overall albatross population" Bob Peyton, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Project Leader for Midway Atoll Refuge and Memorial says in the USFWS release. "If you consider that albatross don’t always lay an egg each year and when they do they only raise one chick at a time – each egg is tremendously important in maintaining the survival of a colony."
According the USFWS, the birds only spend 10 percent of their time on their nesting grounds. But it’s a dangerous time. Since they evolved on small islands and atolls without mammals or land predators, they have no defenses against invasive mammals like foxes or rats. At sea, where they spend the vast majority of their time, they face threats from fishing nets and longlines, oil spills and contamination from plastic. It’s believed that in her lifetime, Wisdom has traveled over two to three million miles, avoiding all of those possible threats.
So how long until Wisdom and Akeakamai welcome their wee one into the world? It takes about two months for an albatross egg to hatch, meaning the chick will likely arrive in the middle of February or earlier, depending on when exactly it was laid. Until then, the two experienced parents will share egg-tending responsibilities, switching off every two to three days while the other one goes out to fish.