Albatross mate for life, except when they don’t

By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

Albatross have a reputation for choosing one mate for life, which is true. 

Except when it isn’t. 

In fact, in the case of Ganesh and Gracie, you would need a decade-long, gender-fluid flow chart. In 2009 they were an item; together they raised a healthy chick on Kaua’i. After that, for unknown reasons, they broke up. For the next four seasons they both raised chicks with another mate: Ganesh with Lakshmi, Gracie with George. At the beginning of the 2014 season, Ganesh returned like clockwork after several months at sea. Lakshmi reunited with him. She laid an egg and both parents tended it faithfully. 

Gracie also touched down, back from her own long-distance oceanic travels. Sadly, George never showed up. A presumed widow, Gracie had two predictable options: she could go back to sea and resume her pelagic pursuit of squid, or she could hang around in the colony to explore the possibilities of a new partner. 

Photo: When nesting season begins, mates wait for the sight of their love returning. © Hob Osterlund

She chose neither. Despite several acres of shaded woods and open fields, she picked a nesting spot about two feet away from Ganesh and Lakshmi. 

In other words, she moved in with her ex and his second wife. 

She constructed her nest and laid an egg. Was it fertile? If so, had she mated with Ganesh, or could she possibly have found a new love already?  We would never know. After a few days, Gracie ditched her own egg and began taking turns with Ganesh and Lakshmi, incubating their offspring. Why not? What child would not benefit from multiple sources of nurturing? 

Gracie’s egg sat stage left, mute and exposed like an understudy memorizing her lines, never to hatch.

Alas, the three-parent egg also failed. Weeks past its due date, the trio huddled nearby, not quite ready to give up. Gracie and Lakshmi preened each other, shoulders touching. One of the mōlī stood, strolled to the egg and spoke gently to it. It was dad. It was Ganesh. 

Over the next few years, their saga morphed further into As-The-Bird-Turns soap opera. For three more seasons Gracie seemed like she was still into her ex. In 2015 when she laid an egg about six feet away and stayed faithful to it, you could say she was beginning to reclaim a tiny bit of independence. Despite Gracie’s steadfastness, however, after five weeks of solo incubation duties, her hunger took charge. She had to leave to sustain herself. If she had a new mate, he hadn’t appeared for his shift.  

In 2016 and again in 2017 she laid her egg nearby, each year a bit farther from Ganesh and Lakshmi, each like a single footprint stepping away. 

In the 2018 nesting season, Gracie finally moved to a different part of the colony at long last. She had chosen a female mate this time, so their nest contained two eggs. These pairings are not uncommon among albatross in Hawai’i, but typically both eggs in a two-egg nest will be infertile. Not so for Gracie. One of the eggs in her nest was fertile, which meant there was a male in the picture. To our surprise, he ended up participating in the parenting. Their chick fledged successfully.  

Sadly, last year neither of Gracie’s new partners returned. As fate would have it, Lakshmi also failed to return. 

Photo: Ganesh waits for mate Lakshmi; she fails to return. © Hob Osterlund

Gracie and Ganesh had both been widowed. Would they return to sea, or would they begin the search for a new mate?

Neither. In late December they were seen together in their old favorite nesting spot. It was too late to raise a chick, but that didn’t stop them from sharing hours of sweet nothings. 

Whew. So what about this year, in the prelude to the 2020 season? You guessed it. Gracie and Ganesh have officially reunited. The original pair has remarried. They have one egg. It’s fertile. The nest is deep in the woods, away from the others, just like they like it. 

Photo: Ganesh and Gracie, mates a decade ago, reunite. © Hob Osterlund
Photo: Ganesh faithfully incubates an egg in their favored nesting spot. © Hob Osterlund

So now have they mated for life? Stand by. 

2 Comments on “Albatross mate for life, except when they don’t

  1. Ohhhh … I want to cry … so interesting hearing about this … Our beloved osprey pair in Montana- Iris & Louis experienced Louis finding a widowed female down the river – Iris & Louis had raised a chick the year before – all started as normal w 3 eggs – but Iris abandoned them with no Louis around 😢 This was our “Soap Osprey” … stay tuned this spring

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