Oct 13

Scientists in Japan have discovered that the threatened short-tailed albatross may, in fact, be two separate species.

Short-tailed albatross image

Short-tailed albatross

Weighing in at 8.5 kilograms and with a wingspan of more than 2 metres, the short-tailed albatross is an impressive animal. However, this majestic seabird appears to have been harbouring a genetic secret.

Research by scientists from the University of Tokyo and Tottori University, recently published in an electronic version of Conservation Genetics, has revealed that there are probably two distinct species of short-tailed albatross or ‘ahodori’ as it is also known.

Separated by sea

This large seabird, named for its unusually short tail, only breeds in two locations in the whole world: on the Senkaku Islands and on Torishima in the Izu Islands, both in Japan. These two areas were once thought to simply hold separate populations, but are now believed to house entirely different species.

The researchers analysed gene samples taken from short-tailed albatross bones which they had dug up on the islands, as well as from the seabirds’ feathers which had been collected at the two breeding sites.

Short-tailed albatross image

Short-tailed albatross in flight

The results showed that, despite being identical in appearance, the two bird populations were genetically different enough to be classified as separate species, and had probably split from each other more than 1,000 years ago.

Conservation Conundrum

Due to its tiny breeding range, the short-tailed albatross is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and is legally protected in Japan. Torishima is an active volcanic island, and as part of a conservation and breeding programme launched by the Japanese Environment Ministry in 1993, chicks have been moved from there to Mukojima in the Ogasawara Islands in an attempt to increase their numbers.

There are approximately 3,000 short-tailed albatrosses in Japan, and some are thought to have flown from the Senkaku Islands to Torishima, though whether or not the two species are interbreeding remains unknown.

Short-tailed albatross image

Short-tailed albatross courtship display

The new discovery may affect the ministry’s conservation project, and researchers are calling for a re-evaluation of the status of the short-tailed albatross, as well as a review of the conservation strategy currently in place for the species. With two separate species to conserve, a new tailored strategy could be required in order to safeguard their future.

Masaki Eda, an associate professor of Tottori University and one of the scientists involved with the research, fears that without urgent action, a loss of genetic diversity could be on the cards: “To conserve gene diversity, an examination of the birds’ genes should be conducted as soon as possible to prevent interbreeding.”

Read more on this story at Daily Yomiuri Online – New short-tailed albatross species found.

View photos and videos of the short-tailed albatross on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author