This might start out as something that comes across as a normal average wildlife article, so I better warn you, there is a rather surprising twist coming up.
Back in prehistoric March 2007, the then First lady Barbara Bush gave a talk while visiting Hawaii. The occasion was notable because she was sharing her remarks at the Announcement of the Native Hawaiian Name for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument in Honolulu. The name is now “The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument“.
During this talk Mrs Bush was also positively gushing about the wildlife she had encountered during her visit …
…For Cindy Waddington, a volunteer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Midway, caring for the archipelago means protecting the millions of birds that call these islands home. Midway’s ancient Hawaiian name, Pihemanu, means “the loud din of birds.” After her first sleepless night courtesy of the Laysan albatross, Cindy realized that the name was well-deserved. And actually, we all realized that, too, when we slept there night before last.
Right now, the albatross, the Laysan albatross, has nested, and there are millions of little chicks everywhere. Everywhere you step you have to watch to make sure you don’t step on one of these vulnerable little chicks. They have no natural predators. They nest right on the grounds. The parents, the mating pair, who mate for life, leave their baby chicks to go fish and then come back and bring them their food. And it really — you become so protective of these little chicks, they’re so vulnerable. These precious little chicks have really served to remind all of us how vulnerable life is everywhere, but especially on these sacred islands…
For Mrs Bush, the Laysan Albatrosses that mated for life and then dedicated their lives to nurturing and caring for their chicks, were perfect examples of a well-functioning family. Literally Monogamy incarnate and a very natural inspiration for us humans.
Except … well yes, if you know you know, so don’t spoil the surprise coming up by blurting it out.
The Laysan Albatross
When you see the picture at the top you might perhaps envisage it as a small unremarkable looking bird, and in one sense that is perhaps true, they don’t have a special breeding plumage, and also the males and females look identical so you can’t even tell the genders apart.
What such images will however fail to truly capture is their size. On average they are 32 in in length and have a wingspan of 77-80 in.
It is also the second-most common seabird in the Hawaiian Islands. The estimated population is roughly 1.18 million birds and that number is growing.
The observation that the Albatrosses on the island of Laysan has no predators also means that they are rather easy to monitor and track, so this is exactly what biologists have been doing for rather a long time.
Often, as you make observations, questions will arise and the curious will devise smart ways to try and answer such questions as new technologies emerge to give us the tools to get new information and hence new insights.
Now here is something odd, a question.
It was observed that some of the nests had two eggs.
Biologically, that’s not possible because an albatross can only lay just one egg, so why the two eggs, was some form of foster parenting going on perhaps. It was a bit of a mystery.
One new tool available was DNA analysis.
Roughly about a year after Mrs Bush’s visit a wildlife biologist named Lindsay Young published some rather astonishing insights.
What she and her team had done was to carefully monitor and follow birds between 2004 and 2007. Those of interest were not only ringed, but they also took blood samples.
For the pairs that had two egg samples they also gathered feathers from their nests.
The shocking Discovery
What was a huge shock to all is that as many as one third of all nesting pairs were female-female.
Over time it was also discovered that while some females switched to male partners, others formed a lifelong bond with the same female partner.
The Published Paper
Young and her team published their results within “Biology Letters” on May 28, 2008.
This is indeed a truly fascinating discovery. It also explained the two eggs. Both females in the pair were laying eggs.
OK, so you might be wondering who the fathers were. They also looked into that …
Paternity analysis showed that 10 of the 16 chicks produced by female–female pairs were fathered by paired males, probably due to a scarcity of unpaired males at the colony during the copulatory period. This observation also provides confirmation of extra-pair copulations in Laysan albatross. Fathers of chicks in female–female pairs were located at varying distances from the nest and were not simply the nearest neighbours. No male fathered more than three of the chicks during the course of the study, indicating that females did not prefer any one male.
… oh, and this is not simply a fad, the study reveals this paring is a long term strategy …
Almost half of the female–female pairs on Oahu were together for the duration of this study (4 years). Several pairs on Kauai have been together for at least 8 years, and one pair on Kauai has been together for 19 years (B. Zaun 2007, unpublished data), indicating that female–female pairing is a long-term strategy.
We now all have Questions for the deeply Religious
- Did Jesus also die for the Laysan albatross?
- Are these Laysan albatrosses sinners?
- Since they are not in any way related to Adam and Eve, how did “sin” enter into this species?
- For those that claim being gay is “against Nature” and “not natural”, then please do explain this.
In the end, it turns out that Mrs Bush was actually correct, they really are an inspiration. Sans a single jot of religious dogma being dispensed, we have Laysan albatrosses being true to who they are, and we also don’t have albatross clerics dispensing hatred and intolerance, so they are clearly doing a far better job than us.