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A Baby at 62! Why Are Scientists So Surprised?


She is 62, and the smarty-pants scientists were sure her fertile days were long over. But then she (literally) gave them the bird by hatching a new little albatross chick.

Her name is Wisdom, and she's a beautiful charcoal-gray and snowy-white Laysan albatross (see a typical one, pictured at left) who lives at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge near the Hawaiian Islands.

Although the average Laysan albatross dies at less than half her age, Wisdom is proof you should never underestimate an older female.

She has raised chicks five times since 2006, and as many as 35 in her lifetime, according to a story this week in the Washington Post. And, although albatrosses mate for life, she's also shown that she can get a younger mate when necessary. She's already done it at least twice, scientists say. (To see a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo of Wisdom and her newest mate, click here.)

Just as astonishing, she has likely flown up to 3 million miles since she was first tagged in 1956, report the scientists who have tracked her for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

While the many grandmothers helping to raise and shepherd their grandchildren may not be quite as amazed, wildlife experts seemed stunned by Wisdom's accomplishments.

"If she were human, she would be eligible for Medicare in a couple years, yet she is still regularly raising young and annually circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean. Simply incredible," said Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the Bird Banding Laboratory at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md.

Equally impressive is legendary ornithologist Chandler Robbins, who was nearly 40 when he first put a little aluminum band around Wisdom's ankle in 1956 to help track her. In 2001, when Robbins was in his 80s and still working for the USGS,  he returned to the atoll and "amid the thousands of albatrosses that nest there, picked up a bird with a tag that traced all the way back to one with a signature he recognized - his own," wrote Post reporter Darryl Fears.

That's when scientists got excited and gave Wisdom her name, estimating her age then at nearly AARP-ready, or about 49, Fears wrote.  But she could be several years older - and Robbins, now 94 and retired, is sifting through the tangled data. "I'm trying to straighten out the record," he told the Post. "It takes a lot."

Wisdom is seen as a symbol of hope for her species, wildlife experts say. Nineteen of 21 albatross species are threatened with extinction, thanks in large part to humans. Longline fishing has depleted their numbers, because they get hooked and drown. The birds also swallow plastic debris in the ocean, notes the USGS; this is life threatening to the chicks. Scientists hope that by learning more about a healthy albatross, like Wisdom, they can learn more about the health of our oceans.


Photo: puuikibeach /flickr








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