The global hunt for the original wandering albatross

Vertebrate Curator Alan Tennyson explores the history of the name of the wandering albatross and the hunt for the original specimens.

The wandering albatross is one of the world’s greatest ocean wanderers, with individuals circumnavigating the Southern Ocean and travelling 120,000 km in a year.

These albatrosses have been among the most high-profile of seabirds ever since reports of their existence in southern oceans reached Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

But until now it has been unclear what species we mean when we refer to a ‘wandering albatross’. Our new research paper answers this question.

wandering-albatross-adult-fying-at-sea-off-falkland-islands-january-2016-image-rebecca-bowater-by-rebecca-bowater-fpsnz-afiap-www-floraandfauna-co-nznz-birds-online

Wandering albatross off the Falkland Islands. Photo: Rebecca Bowater, NZ Birds Online.

The first documented albatross

The father of modern taxonomy, Swede Carl Linnaeus, made the first scientific description of an albatross in 1758.

He called it Diomedea exulans. ‘Diomedea’ refers to Greek Trojan war hero king Diomedes (he was in the wooden horse).

According to legend, after Diomedes’ death, the goddess Venus transformed his followers into birds so that they could stand guard at their king’s grave.

The word ‘exulans’ is Latin for ‘wanderer’, hence the species is known as the wandering albatross.

Which kind of albatross did Linnaeus name?

Most authorities today recognise 21 or so albatross species, including seven giant taxa (with 3 m wingspans) in the Southern Ocean: southern royal albatross, northern royal albatross, Amsterdam albatross, antipodean albatross (with Gibson’s albatross as a subspecies), Tristan albatross, and the wandering albatross.

Linnaeus’ scientific name has long been considered to refer to one of these greater albatrosses but there has been confusion about exactly which kind of giant albatross.

For example, at the time of the publication of our paper (February 2017), Wikipedia said that Linnaeus’ name was ‘based on a specimen from the Cape of Good Hope’, yet our research documents that this is not entirely correct because it was based on multiple birds and not just from the Cape of Good Hope.

Many publications, including a popular 2003 world bird checklist, consider that Diomedea exulans refers to a temperate breeding form of albatross, while numerous other publications use this name for a larger, more southerly breeding form. So who is correct?

Solving the riddle

Linnaeus’ 1758 name was drawn from three previous accounts of albatrosses published between 1681 and 1747. But those accounts included much ambiguity, with the descriptions probably applying to both small temperate breeding forms and very large subantarctic birds, and possibly even to royal albatrosses.

In formal nomenclature, these birds are all part of the ‘type’ series of Linnaeus’ Diomedea exulans.

Linnaeus described the species’ habitat as ‘within the ocean tropics and at the Cape of Good Hope’, which also provides few clues to the species’ identity because all the albatrosses are great ocean travelers and can be found thousands of kilometres from their nesting grounds.

Nevertheless, most of these descriptions probably primarily referred to the most widespread, large form of subantarctic albatross.

One way of solving the riddle of the species’ identity was to re-examine Linnaeus’ type specimens and determine what form they belonged to.

Searching the world for the original Linnaeus’ albatrosses

Our international team (from Australia, Germany, the United States and New Zealand), with the generous help of many museum staff, searched the world’s museums for Linnaeus’ albatross specimens but couldn’t find any.

Apparently all have been lost or destroyed – some by Second World War bombings.

So there was no certain way of determining what kind or kinds of albatross Linnaeus was referring to.

Yet for communication in biology and wildlife management, precision and stability in the scientific names is vital.

We did, however, locate the type specimens of several other large albatrosses.

"Chocolate albatross" in Vienna

One of the albatross type specimens that we examined (in 2012). This ‘chocolate albatross’ in Vienna (NHMW 13.648), is a juvenile wandering albatross Diomedea exulans, collected on Captain Cook’s first or second voyage to the southern oceans. Photograph by Alan Tennyson. Te Papa

 

Wandering albatross in Buenos Aires

I examined this albatross type specimen (MACN Or8816) in Buenos Aires in 2016. It is another wandering albatross Diomedea exulans, collected at South Georgia. Photograph by Alan Tennyson. Te Papa

Our conclusions

Fortunately taxonomy is governed by strict rules and there was a way to resolve such a tricky nomenclatorial impasse.

By selecting a new type specimen (a ‘neotype’) to represent Linnaeus’ Diomedea exulans, this name could be fixed to the species represented by that neotype bird.

In our new paper we selected an albatross specimen preserved in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, as the neotype of Diomedea exulans Linnaeus.

This specimen was a breeding bird from South Georgia, deep in the South Atlantic, and is a representative of the largest kind of ‘wandering albatross’.

By this action, Diomedea exulans Linnaeus, becomes the valid name for the large form of the wandering albatross complex.

Apart from nesting at South Georgia, it also nests on subantarctic Indian Ocean islands (Prince Edward, Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen) and south of New Zealand on Macquarie Island.

Our action simultaneously clarifies the scientific names of the other forms of albatross that had previously been referred to as ‘wandering’ albatrosses: the Tristan albatross is Diomedea dabbenena Mathews, 1929, the Amsterdam albatross is Diomedea amsterdamensis Roux, Jouventin, Mougin, Stahl & Weimerskirch, 1983, the antipodean albatross is Diomedea exulans antipodensis Robertson & Warham, 1992, and Gibson’s albatross is Diomedea exulans gibsoni Robertson & Warham, 1992.

Wandering albatross Diomedea exulans Linnaneus, 1769, neotype in New York. Photo Alan Tennyson, Te Papa.

Our newly named neotype of the wandering albatross Diomedea exulans Linnaeus, in New York, AMNH 526787, collected at South Georgia in 1913. Photo: American Museum of Natural History.

Protecting albatrosses

Unfortunately most kinds of albatross are threatened with extinction – mainly due to being drowned as bycatch in longline fisheries.

As a result, albatrosses are now a focus of global conservation concern.

We hope that knowing how to distinguish between the closely related forms of greater albatross, and being able to describe them with clearly identifiable names, will assist conservation work on these magnificent birds.

2 Responses

  1. Alan Tennyson

    Hi Chris
    Thanks for your comments. I’m interested to hear what else you have found out.
    I will email you a copy of the full account.
    cheers
    Alan

    Reply
  2. cjr robertson

    Dear Alan
    Can you send me a copy of this blog account please. I don’t entirely agree, but no doubt will have to accept. There is good evidence from the linaean specimens illustrations that it should be a small bird (presented at Ottawa IOC in 1986) and there are at least 2-3 specimens in Europe which I have seen and measured which would fit that premise. No doubt we can debate sometime.
    Not sure that your translation of Lin descript is the same as the one I have. Probably a translation problem.
    Cheers
    cjrr

    Reply

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