Albatrosses are often touted as the most monogamous birds around. Known to select a mate early in life and return to this same partner year after year, the truth about albatross relationships is a bit messier than one might think.
Firstly, while albatrosses are generally socially monogamous, meaning that they bond and rear their young with one individual of the opposite sex, these birds are known to engage in “affairs” with other individuals outside of their partnership. These “affairs” are more often committed by partnered males and may account for up to twenty-four percent of albatross paternity.
So, the albatross is not a perfectly monogamous bird, though these animals are a far stronger example of monogamy than most of the animal kingdom. A recent study analyzing “divorce” rates amongst albatross pairs, however, suggests that even amongst these mostly monogamous birds, certain personality types are less likely to maintain their relationships than others.
The study which comes out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s FLEDGE Lab focuses on the relationship dynamics of the Wandering Albatross. What the study expected to find was a link between male brazenness and divorce and affairs. The hypothesis was that males who are more bold and inclined to take risks will attempt to maximize their breeding potential by stepping out on their mates and conceiving more offspring through other females. Instead, the study found just the opposite.
Boldness in albatrosses is ranked based on their reaction to being approached. Research suggests that boldness as a personality trait in these birds is both reasonably consistent and likely heritable. After ranking the boldness of the males involved in the study, the FLEDGE Lab did find a link between this trait and divorce. Instead of bold males being prone to divorce, the study found that bold males are more inclined to protect their mates from encroaching males and thus preserve their “marriage.” Shy males, on the other hand, were more prone to give up their mate when another male got involved for the sake of conflict avoidance.
In addition, it was found that both male and female albatrosses which had been through “divorces” in the past were far more likely to do so again. The complexities of bird romances might seem like an odd subject of study, however these behavioral studies are more valuable than one might think. The Wandering Albatross is a vulnerable species for whom breeding and rearing young is a process that takes a significant amount of time and energy. For researchers working to conserve limited albatross populations, predicting relationship dynamics can be a valuable tool.
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