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.
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.
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.
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.