Development and maturation of plumage in the wandering albatross Diomedea exulans

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Abstract

Changes in the plumage of the wandering albatross Diomedea exulans were studied on the Crozet Islands, using a population of birds of known sex and age and including some birds more than 32 years old. Plumage phases of a cross-section of the male and female populations are presented. Males and females fledge with a dark brown plumage. Between the first and fourth year the male's plumage becomes much whiter than the female's. Between five and 15–18 years old the whitening of plumage in either sex develops in parallel though still separated by the extent of the initial divergence. Male plumage probably attains a definitive snowy stage after 30 years while the plumage of the female does not mature beyond an intermediate stage, which is reached after 20 to 25 years. Maturation of the plumage of head, back and wing are compared. In birds of similar age, breeding birds tend to have a whiter plumage than non-breeders. In the oceanic range of the species, white birds, i.e. mostly adult males, favour cold antarctic waters while dark birds, i.e. mostly adult females and juveniles, are observed in warmer subtropical and subantarctic waters. We discuss the possible adaptive significance of the slow maturation in the plumage of the wandering albatross and of the differences in plumage between sexes and between populations.

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