How Giant Birds Can Fly Nearly 10,000 Miles in One Go

A wandering albatross lands at a nest site on South Georgia Island, Antarctica. Photograph by Paul Souders, Corbis.

Forget circumnavigating the globe in 80 days—an albatross can do it in a mere 46!

These world travelers are among the largest flying birds, weighing up to 25 pounds (11 kilograms), and with a wingspan of 11 feet (3 meters). But hefting such huge bodies off the ground takes a lot of energy. If albatrosses flew simply by flapping their wings, they would lose about half their body mass fueling that kind of flight.

So how do these kings of the sky complete such long journeys so quickly? It turns out they glide in a specific flight pattern that allows them to harness wind energy, gliding right above the sea’s surface to stay aloft, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Coasting Through Life

A team of scientists from the Technische Universitat Munchen in Munich, Germany, used aerospace engineering to reveal the birds’ unique flight patterns—a physical feat that has puzzled academics for years. By attaching GPS trackers to 20 wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) in the wild, the researchers were able to study data from 16 of the birds as they left and returned to the Kerguelen Archipelago (map) in the Indian Ocean.

Albatrosses yo-yo up and down in the sky, taking advantage of momentum generated on their downhill glides in order to climb back up against the wind. These constant up and down changes in altitude keep the birds aloft without requiring much effort. In fact, the propulsive force generated by such undulations is about ten times greater than anything the albatross could create by simply flapping its wings.

Working Harder, Not Smarter

But it’s a trick the rest of the animal kingdom doesn’t often use. For example, hummingbirds weigh about 0.07 ounces (2.2 grams)—98 percent less than an albatross—and yet their wings have to beat about 70 times per second to keep their little bodies aloft. An albatross can go hours without flapping. Because of this frantic motion, hummingbirds have to eat up to three times their body weight every day.

Even humans struggle with energy efficiency. “An elite cyclist at 60 percent of his maximum aerobic rate can only support 15 to 30 percent of his energy needs with consumed sugars,” according to a LiveScience article. That means we have to refuel more often than the albatross, which can travel greater distances without working as hard.

While it took Jules Verne’s characters just over two and a half months to circumnavigate the globe, an albatross can do it in about half the time. Phileas Fogg and his trusty sidekick Passepartout just can’t compete with these fantastic flyers!

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato is a science journalist who loves em dashes, ’80s music and parasites. She has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with concentrations in science journalism, photography, and radio reporting. Contact her at news@mbloudoff.com, and follow her on Twitter at @mbloudoff.
  • El Gabilon

    Reminds us of the “Ancient Mariner” where killing an albatross brings mucho bad luck! We humans however can circumnavigate the earth much faster with our supersonic aircraft even though the “Creator” didn’t provide us with wings. If we would develop our telepathic abilities we would be able to travel mentally in micro seconds.

  • Brandon

    Amazing to read. I just couldn’t stop reading it

  • wex

    humming birds cant harness the same principle coz flowers arent found in open spaces expansive as the surface of the ocean, instead they are in physically challenging enviroments, it has to beat it wings to hover no matter the flowers position,i think an albatros cant hover, bad choice of comparison

  • wex

    humming birds cant harness the same principle coz flowers arent found in open spaces expansive as the surface of the ocean, instead they are designed for physically challenging enviroments, it has to beat it wings to hover no matter the flowers position,i think an albatros cant hover or fly low in a forest, bad choice of comparison

  • Mongie

    Telepathic abilities,.I like dat One!! ts amazing wat was there already before humans.. Tingz like dis are scarce, YOO!

  • aki nousath

    Act on facts

  • David Wartel

    Interesting, but not new information. It has long been known that albatross use updrafts from waves for energy to soar. Other birds do not do this either because they inhabit different niches or are not physically adapted to do so. There are several other species that probably COULD do this, like frigate birds, but, again, inhabit different niches.

  • Steven

    I love watching Albatross soar in Hawaii. This article is very interesting, but should have mentioned the mechanism by which these amazing birds perform their magic. It is called “dynamic soaring” and takes advantage of the wind shear (change of wind speed with height) just above the wave crests. The albatross lives in windy environments.

  • dr manoj vaidya M. D.

    very fascinating bird
    can fly 14000 kms at a stretch

    round the world in 40 days
    large wing span
    least energy expenditure

  • Dipankar Pathak

    National Geographic joint to i am very happy ..

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